Think Forward blog

REDD Concerns

Posted December 10, 2008

IATP's Anne Laure Constantin is reporting from the global climate talks in Poznan, Poland this week.

Climatechange M. Sarwadi has come all the way from Indonesia to face the cold of Poznan and the agitation of the international conference center. Back in the province of Jambi, he is a farmer involved in subsistence agriculture. He has come here as part of the delegation of Via Campesina.

M. Sarwardi has a note of caution to deliver to negotiators here, who are negotiating a new mechanism called REDD: reducing emissions due to forest degradation and deforestation in developing countries. There is hope that this program will provide incentives for developing countries to preserve their forests, which have a huge potential to store carbon. A short blog here highlights some of the issues at stake.

But Sarwardi is warning that these incentives could damage farmers' and indigenous peoples' livelihoods. He shared the experience of his community when a major forest restoration project was launched that pushed the people off their land. He stresses that indigenous people and peasants are not responsible for deforestation, that their livelihoods are based on a lively and diverse forest environment.

Voices from vulnerable communities are very scarce here. Their experiences need to be heard and taken into account, especially since they will be most affected when climate change strikes. If the mechanisms put in place here end up being more detrimental than beneficial to them, we will not have made any progress. Sarwardi, and representatives from small farmers and indigenous peoples, need to be properly involved in the discussions on climate change. The are stressing the need to focus on serious mitigation commitments as a matter of priority.

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A Brave New World at Climate Talks

Posted December 9, 2008

IATP's Anne Laure Constantin is reporting from the global climate talks in Poznan, Poland this week.

Climatechange Agriculture is not a major topic in the current climate change negotiations (I will come back to this in an upcoming post). But in the corridors, many people are raising the issue of agriculture's vulnerability to climate change as a matter of emergency—all of them admitting there is no ready made solution. Yesterday, the International Federation of Agricultural Producers held its side event. Although the session was late, the room was packed.

The discussions were quite surprising. Although they were introduced by an organic dairy farmer from Sweden and kicked off by an intervention stressing the need to associate farmers with the development of knowledge on how to adapt to climate change, the rest of the session focused on the possible paths that biotechnology could open to limit greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. The most astonishing to me was the presentation by a representative of the New Zealand government: research institutions there are not really trying to reduce agricultural emissions due to livestock production, but rather to moderate their increase. And this means genetic manipulations, vaccinations, and other ideas to prevent cows from producing methane! Look just at the PowerPoint; the slides speak for themselves.

After this presentation, I felt like we would soon be living in a brave new world in the name of climate change mitigation!

Discussing this with colleagues here makes me realize more and more that the reality of the negotiations at the UNFCCC is based on hopes that science or market-based mechanisms are going to provide the answer to climate change. Talks about changing our energy-intensive production model are very marginal. Not a very encouraging sentiment.

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The rhetoric of climate change...

Posted December 8, 2008

IATP's Anne Laure Constantin is reporting from the global climate talks in Poznan, Poland this week.

Climatechange I'm just coming out of a GREAT presentation by Sivan Kartha from the Stockholm Environment Institute on the greenhouse development rights framework. Really, really worth a read (OK, here is an executive summary. At least do that!). It is an attempt at designing a multilateral framework that guarantees the right to development in a climate-constrained world. No need to say that the corresponding measures are hugely ambitious... especially relative to what's being discussed in this conference.

The discussion was organized by the Heinrich Boll Foundation, which brought together various stakeholders of the ongoing negotiations (including a representative from Mexico, a representative from Norway and representatives from the UNFCCC and IPCC secretariat). Throughout the meeting I was struck by a basic (but I think important) challenge to how we address climate change: the rhetoric.

How do we change the way we talk about the fight against climate change? All around, people refer to "burden," "efforts," "costs," etc. No wonder, if you consider who's involved in these discussions: mostly people who will have to significantly change their energy-intensive lifestyle in the process. But another way to frame the discussion is to discuss how many people would clearly benefit from a new environment-friendly production model, not only in the long run (Nicholas Stern already demonstrated that it is economically irrational to not come to grips with climate change right away), but also immediately! So many people are losing out from the current model and no one talks about them! Smallholder, subsistence farmers in the developing world, indigenous people in most parts of the world, fisherfolks whose livelihoods would be preserved etc.

Maybe if we changed the focus of whose lifestyle has to be ensured, the negotiations would be easier to conclude? This is a serious question about who is represented here!

PS: Speakers in the sessions I'm attending are overwhelmingly male and predominantly over 50. Why is that?

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Warming up for climate talks in Poznan

Posted December 7, 2008

IATP's Anne Laure Constantin will be reporting from the global climate talks in Poznan, Poland this week.

After a 22-hour-train journey from Geneva (I had to control the climate footprint of this trip!), I finally arrived in Poznan, Poland this afternoon. More than 11,000 delegates are gathered here at the United Nations Climate Change Conference.

This UN conference, which started on December 1 and ends on December 12, aims to strengthen international action on climate change. If all goes well, the current negotiations should lead UN member States to sign onto an ambitious global pact next year in Copenhagen, Denmark. There are four main areas of work: mitigation (commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions); adaptation (how to deal with the inevitable consequences of climate change); technology transfer; and finance (these include commitments by developed countries to support developing countries' efforts to curb emissions). The UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) provides a useful "climate change glossary" here.

To be honest, the conference center looked very quiet this afternoon, since no official meetings were happening on a Sunday. Only a few social movement representatives were busy making plans for how to collaborate to put pressure on governments for real and adequate commitments to address the climate challenge.

Tomorrow is also off, due to the observance of the Islamic feast of Eid-Al-Adha. However, a lot of "side-events" are scheduled, so Monday will likely be a busy day.

Climate change and agriculture are inextricably linked. Agriculture depends fundamentally on the weather. Climate change has already caused a negative impact on agriculture in many parts of the world because of increasingly severe weather patterns (IATP's Sarah Ellis recently compiled a literature review on this issue). And yet, the challenges to agriculture do not seem to be taken seriously enough by governments. I will report on discussions in Poznan around climate and agriculture over the next few days.

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Call for Greater Commodity Market Regulation

Posted December 4, 2008

Last month, IATP published a study examining the role of excessive commodity speculation by multi-billion dollar index funds in the rapid rise and fall of global food prices in 2007 and 2008. As lead author Steve Suppan explained, "The underlying fundamental for these funds is not the supply and demand of physical commodities, but the profit target. As long as Wall Street players could hide their government-permitted debt loads, they were free to induce price volatility in excess of what could be explained by fundamental factors, and then profit by betting on the induced price movements."

This week, a coalition of consumer, energy and agriculture groups (including IATP) sent a letter to President-elect Obama calling for greater regulation over excessive commodity speculation. Specifically, the coalition asked for greater transparency and accountability in market trading, including currently unregulated over-the-counter and off-shore trades, and more resources for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The coalition also called for greater coordination with international regulators.

For family farmers, suporters of sustainable and climate-friendly agriculture and those who are facing hunger, tougher regulation on speculative trading is absolutely essential. The extreme volatility in commodity markets has contributed to skyrocketing costs for farmers, losses in sustainably farmed land, and a dramatic increase in the number of hungry people around the world. Time for a change.

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Toxic Toys

Posted December 3, 2008

One of the most unfortunate outcomes of the steady effort to weaken U.S. regulatory agencies has been the proliferation of children's toys on the market that contain chemicals known to be harmful. Remarkably, U.S. agencies don't require full safety testing of chemicals before they are added to toys. Even after chemicals have been found to cause harm, the government often doesn't restrict their use. To make matters worse, toy makers are not required to label the chemicals in toys, leaving parents in the dark.

Healthy toys To help parents as the holiday season approaches, the environmental health coalition Healthy Toys released their second annual consumer guide to toxic chemicals in toys. Researchers tested over 1,500 toys for lead, cadmium, arsenic, chlorine and other harmful chemicals. One in three of the toys tested contained "medium" or "high" levels of chemicals of concern.

IATP is a co-coordinator of the Minnesota-based Healthy Legacy coalition, which helped release the healthy toy report today. Healthy Legacy has been pushing for the phase out of toxic chemicals in everyday consumer products. In 2005, IATP and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy found that toxic chemical exposures were costing Minnesota approximately $1.5 billion a year connected to childhood disease. This new consumer guide makes the case louder than ever for strengthening our regulation of toxic chemicals.

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Prioritizing Food Safety

Posted December 1, 2008

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified food safety as one of the top 13 issues of urgent priority for the Obama administration. In the latest issue of the Global Food Safety Monitor, IATP's Steve Suppan covers the big food safety stories affecting the world, including World Trade Organization efforts to assess private standards set by big food retailers, low morale at Europe's top food safety authority, the latest on the melamine tragedy, meat contamination in Canada and blocked imports from Mexico. Go here to subscribe to the Global Food Safety Monitor.

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Tackling the Toxic Table

Posted November 28, 2008

"Rising prices and food recalls have exposed the myriad challenges facing our global food system," writes IATP's David Wallinga, M.D., in a new commentary. "Signs of an emerging crisis: melamine in baby formula and candies; a rise in obesity and diet-related diseases; air and water pollution from factory farms; and the record-sized `Dead Zone' in the Gulf of Mexico,caused in large part by natural gas-derived corn fertilizers flowing from the Mississippi. And we are likely heading for more changes because our industrialized food system relies on costly and polluting fossil fuels, used intensively in the form of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers as well as for transporting food around the world."

Despite these challenges, Dr. Wallinga gives us 10 steps we can all take to steer our global food system in a healthier direction. Find out what you can do!

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The Stubborn World of Reality

Posted November 25, 2008

Food_crisis_confronting_conference Our conference on the Confronting the Global Food Challenge is in full swing. I am too tired to do it justice, but wanted to share the thoughts of Olivier de Schutter, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the right to food. For more details, you can read his pre-conference paper, A Human Rights Approach to Trade and Investment Policies. In his talk, he gave a summary of where we are in relation to the food crisis, the right to food and the Doha Round. He sat next to the Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Pascal Lamy, as he spoke. In short, he contrasted the world of economic assumptions—such as perfect competition—with a world he characterized as “the stubborn world of reality.”

He gave five reasons why free trade is not the answer for governments preoccupied with the realization of the right to food: 1) Free trade increases countries' exposure to volatile prices; 2) Free trade exacerbates the duality of the agricultural system in which the (vast) majority of smallholders are made to suffer while the small number of big farmers take all the benefit from public policy outcomes; 3) Free trade increases the power of commodity buyers, processors and food retailers, at the expense of farmers and consumers; 4) Free trade undermines the viability of small-scale agriculture in much of the world. Many of the costs of larger farmers are assumed by the public, while small farmers’ costs make them less competitive; 5) Free trade worsens greenhouse gas emissions by rewarding industrial agriculture methods.


It was a great speech. Set against that of Pascal Lamy, it was all the more impressive. Lamy, among other things, dismissed concerns about speculation by saying that all farmers speculate (as if the worry was farmers, as opposed to the tens of billions in investment funds that have so distorted commodity markets in 2008). The WTO DG made some good points about agriculture’s “special” status, but overall was disappointing in his misunderstanding (whether real or apparent) of the audience’s concerns.


You can listen to a number of the presentations, and read backround papers, at our conference web site.

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Of Lame Ducks, Swaps and Food Czars

Posted November 24, 2008

In U.S. political vernacular, the legislative period following an election but before the victorious take office is called a "lame duck" session—defeated members being the "ducks." Often, little legislative progress is made during the "lame duck" interim. What a difference a global financial crisis makes!

On November 13, IATP released a short report, "Commodities Speculation: Risk to Food Security and Agriculture." The report anticipated that the U.S. Senate would take up some time in 2009 to discuss the "Commodity Markets Transparency and Accountability Act" passed by the House of Representatives in mid-September. But on November 20, Senator Tom Harkin, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, announced that he would introduce the "Derivatives Trading Integrity Act of 2008" and hoped to hold hearings in December. Rather than allow the continued existence of an unregulated and privatized "shadow" banking system pioneered by the likes of Goldman Sachs, the American Insurance Group and Lehman Brothers, Harkin said in his bill that "every swap, every derivative, every [commodities] future [contract] will have to be traded on a regulated exchange."

Not to be outdone, also on November 20, Representative Collin Peterson, chair of the House Agriculture Committee, held hearings on credit default swaps (CDS), a financial derivative instrument that witness Eric Dinallo characterized as price-risk creating, rather than a risk-reducing transaction. The insolvency of major CDS traders and investors led to the $1.3 trillion and counting congressional bailout of Wall Street investment banks and other financial institutions. Chairman Peterson and ranking Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte rejected a proposed merger of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). They argued that the CFTC has the legislative authority to regulate CDS and other financial derivatives, and needs only adequate resources to do so. The creation of a new agency would cause delays and loopholes that could further destabilize financial and agricultural markets. Peterson said that committee members would travel to London and Brussels to discuss further how to best regulate financial and agricultural derivatives markets. The Peterson and Harkin bills are likely to get a rapid response from the Obama administration, since CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton is a member of the Obama transition team for agriculture.

Because, as numerous reports have indicated, commodities speculation has been a factor in exacerbating global food insecurity, new legislation and regulation of U.S. commodity markets could include a food security ombudsperson to ensure that food security has a seat at the regulatory table. Coinciding with World Food Day, on October 16, U.S. Representative Jim McGovern proposed that the next U.S. president create a new office to reduce growing global food insecurity, i.e., a "food czar." Though the proposal has been overshadowed by the global financial crisis, McGovern's proposal has the backing of powerful senators who are proposing more international food assistance in the context of overall U.S. agricultural trade policy. U.S. international food assistance has traditionally not only served humanitarian and diplomatic purposes, but, given the absence of government agricultural inventory management, has also served as a way to dump U.S. agriculture surpluses without increasing raw materials costs to agribusiness. Putting a "food czar" on the CFTC and adding food security criteria to the legislative definition of "excessive speculation" would be one way for Congress to ensure that commodities speculation not continue to make food insecurity worse. 

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