Think Forward blog

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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Appreciating Precaution

Posted May 1, 2009

As the current swine flu nears pandemic status, we still have an awful lot to learn about the origins and causes of the disease. Some reports have stated that the swine flu most likely originated in the Mexican state of Veracruz, while other reports refute that.

The media are naturally looking for an explanation for the crisis, and many fingers have been pointed at a huge feedlot in Veracruz that produces one million hogs annually. The corporation and the hog industry at large have rightfully protested that circumstantial evidence should not implicate them.

Regrettably, small farmers and other hog industry workers throughout the world will take a financial hit for an event that does not involve them. However, it should be noted that the call for the public’s precaution in their food purchasing behavior is not without some irony. During the past 30 years, the hog industry, as well as many other forms of agriculture, has morphed in ways that would be unrecognizable to our grandparents. Think of confinement operations that have thousands of animals under a single barn, the frequent use of antibiotics for both therapeutic use and growth enhancement, and lagoons of manure that far exceed the ability of the farm to appropriately utilize the nutrients in the manure. When unusual new infectious diseases emerge, is it really surprising that the public would wonder if these hog confinement operations have anything to do with it?

The hog industry has dramatically changed its production practices without the consent—and often with the vocal opposition—of the general public. Here in the Midwest, concerned citizens have been fighting the expansion of hog feedlots for decades. In Mexico, neighbors of the Veracruz feedlot have been complaining since mid-March about water contamination and respiratory issues.

The food industry understandably laments the fickleness of public opinion. But by using production practices that go way beyond the general acceptance of the public, the hog industry has decided to build itself a proverbial glass house. Once in a while people are going to throw stones.

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Ethanol's Contentious Carbon Footprint

Posted April 30, 2009

Despair abounds in the ethanol industry after the California Air Resources Board (ARB) voted 9 to 1 in favor of the so-called Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) last week. The regulation aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuels 10 percent by 2020.

Taking firm steps toward greenhouse gas emissions reductions is, of course, a good thing. But the new law could potentially cross corn ethanol off the list of fuel options for not only California but also the 11 states planning to adopt programs modeled on the LCFS.

The LCFS will rate the carbon intensity of different transportation fuels by calculating carbon emissions during each fuel’s production, transportation and consumption. Fuel refiners, blenders and distributors will be required to phase out high carbon intensity fuels or to purchase credits from utilities companies selling low-carbon electricity to power electric cars.

Greenhouse gas emissions from consuming and even transporting a fuel are pretty easy to measure. What are much harder to calculate—and far more controversial—are the emissions caused by a fuel’s production.

The biofuels industry has cried foul over ARB’s inclusion of emissions from what’s known as biofuels’ “indirect land use change” effect. Indirect land use change (ILUC) is an attempt to calculate the effect ethanol production has beyond just the land where the corn is grown and the refinery where it’s processed.

According to the scientists ARB commissioned to calculate ILUC, when American farmers sell their corn to ethanol plants, bypassing traditional food and feed markets, farmers on the other side of the globe cut down rainforests and plow up grasslands to plant crops to fill the gap. The resulting release of carbon dioxide from decomposition of exposed organic soil is large, many researchers argue, and must be included in corn ethanol’s carbon footprint.   

It’s not so simple, say ethanol producers and a different set of scientists. Not only is it almost impossibly difficult to accurately quantify the influence U.S. farmers’ actions have on decisions made a world away (how do you sift out other market pressures, politics, etc?), but also, say the critics, the ILUC burden falls unfairly on biofuels: no one is calculating the indirect emissions of petroleum, for example (add up the emissions created by our military in defense of our oil supply, and the number would likely be significant).

I’ve struggled with this one as I’ve watched the lead-up to this decision. Prominent scientists on each side have sent compelling letters to ARB defending or decrying ILUC. I’ve watched heated debates between ILUC inclusion’s defenders and those that support the ethanol industry. I’ve seen public policy students here at UC Berkeley, where I’m a graduate student (in journalism, not public policy), furrow their brows and scratch their heads over its muddled-ness.

How, then, to think about it?

The easiest part is this: to applaud California’s leadership on carbon emissions reductions, something we desperately need bold action on. After that, things get trickier. Clearly, indirect land use change exists, and it’s something we need to address. But is it responsible or useful to quantify this for policy? I’m not sure that it is. The work that’s been done on these calculations (much of it by UC Berkeley professors) has been good. But if you read the literature, you’ll find that an awful lot of uncertainty, unknowns and assumptions go into the calculations. That’s okay for academic work—a process of continual refining, debate, review, revision—but it’s problematic when it comes to policy that will have a big impact on the biofuel industry (and here I’m thinking most about the farmers who either grow biofuel crops, have a stake in local refineries, or both).

The critics here might say, “Well, what’s the alternative?” or “As compared to what?”

I don’t think it’s an either/or.

Until we can figure out a way to accurately calculate ILUC and other fuels’ indirect effects in a way that has—if not consensus—broader scientific and stakeholder support, ARB and eventually the EPA (who is watching this closely as a possible model), would be better off making carbon emissions reductions and indirect land use change two different issues.

ARB has committed to reviewing again the carbon intensity calculations before the LCFS becomes binding in January 2011. Let's hope they will decide to include only biofuels’ direct emissions, as they do for other fuels. Then let's enter into a separate dialogue—with separate policy initiatives—to work on indirect land use change and the indirect effects of other fuels. Let the scientists continue the ILUC debates, and let the stakeholders—both here and abroad—come together to find immediate ways to tackle the actual problem of ILUC.

My guess is that we’d make more progress on both fronts.


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Are foodstocks taboo at FAO?

Posted April 29, 2009

Last week I was in Rome, attending a bunch of FAO meetings related to the food crisis. On Monday, April 20, we co-organized our own event at the FAO, a two-hour discussion on the merits of foodstocks and other market regulatory instruments for food security and long-term development. The discussion was very well attended, proof of the interest in these issues in the wake of the 2008 food crisis.

FAO mtg We had five very interesting presentations (thanks to Alex Danau, Collectif Stratégies Alimentaires, for the photo). Mamadou Cissokho and George Eward, respectively representing West and East African farmers federations, both highlighted how stockholding schemes have been dismantled in their regions and yet are essential to achieving food security and helping farmers take advantage of better marketing opportunities. Daryll Ray, from the University of Tennessee, presented concrete proposals for setting up an international reserve— some of which are also valid for national or regional schemes. Yves Leduc presented the impacts of the Canadian supply management system during the food price spike. He highlighted the role of this scheme in minimizing the abuse of market power by processors and retailers. Finally, Maria Squeff, representative of Argentina, insisted on the need for any new agriculture policy measures to comply with WTO rules. She also talked about the central role of developed country support measures in distorting international markets. Argentina plays a critical role in discussions on the global governance of agriculture since it is chairing the group in charge of reforming the Committee on World Food Security.

We thought holding such a meeting in an UN agency—at a time when government delegates participated in the first FAO trade committee since the food price spike broke out—would be an opportunity to pick government experts' brains about innovative policy tools to once and for all address hunger. It sounded to us like the different policy measures governments have taken as a response to the crisis last year show they realized the need to regulate markets.

But I have to admit that we were a little disappointed by governments' responses. Most of those who spoke at the event pointed at past failures as a reason to not consider foodstocks or grain reserves as an option. In the official meeting, the U.S. delegation argued that the best way out of the crisis is to "simply let markets work."

Now why are governments so stubborn when more than 100 million people have just been added to the ranks of the hungry? Is that not proof enough that something is seriously wrong with the way markets work right now? The point is not to go back to past measures, but to create something new that can help. In Africa, farmers organizations are working on agriculture policies that work for small farmers. It would certainly help if they had international support.

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The Mystique of Cheap Food

Posted April 28, 2009

With increasing public concern and awareness about climate change, food safety, health, immigration, and even swine flu, industrial agriculture’s grip on the American food and agriculture system is starting to loosen. Nowhere was this more evident than at the St. Anthony Main movie theater in Minneapolis on Sunday, where people filled an already packed theater—sitting on the floor and in the aisles—and where many others were turned away from the sold-out showing. For a 9:20 p.m. Sunday night time slot, I figured turnout would be minimal, and especially for Food, Inc., a documentary about the horrors of our industrial agriculture system. But instead, a rapt audience sat for 94 minutes as filmmaker Robert Kenner took us through the origins of U.S. industrial agriculture, the devastating consequences for workers, consumers, animals, and the environment, and how people are fighting back. As part of the 27th Annual Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Fest, Food, Inc. was billed as “one of the most radical” films of the festival.

With renowned writers and activists like Michael Pollan, Joel Salatin and Eric Schlosser, the film examines the illusion of choice and “diversity” in the typical American supermarket, and exposes the numerous hidden costs of our cheap food: appalling conditions in slaughterhouses—both for the animals and the exploited laborers, who are a disposable workforce composed primarily of undocumented workers (many of whom were farmers in Mexico before NAFTA drove 1.5 million Mexican farmers off their land) and people of color; destructive environmental consequences from Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) run-off and pesticides; and farmers who are in such debt to corporations that they have little to no choice about how to run their farms. And while agribusiness makes a huge profit, we are the ones who pay. 

At the end of the film, audience members cheered at Food, Inc.’s call for activism and list of ways to break out of industrial ag’s stranglehold. And while most of the suggestions were positive (e.g., shopping at farmers markets), many were too focused on individual behavioral changes. After a powerful systemic critique, the film could have offered more systemic solutions; much of the ending emphasized market-based solutions, when more weight could have been placed on policy-level ones. When the rules at the policy level are stacked against organic/sustainable agriculture, market-based solutions are limited.

Watch for the film to be in local movie theaters soon.

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Fossil fuel interests reach tentacles into Summit

Posted April 27, 2009

(Editor note: Liza (Guerra) O'Reilly is attending the Indigenous Peoples' Global Summit on Climate Change in Anchorage, Alaska, on behalf of IATP's Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy. Liza is blogging this week from the Summit. Photos from the Summit can be viewed at the Anchorage Daily News Web site.)

I should not have been surprised. Sustainable economic development that would create jobs and long-term economic security as a concrete strategy to adapt and mitigate climate change met its greatest enemy, face to face, when a well-oiled hand prominently extended itself into the last day of discussions at the Summit.

Recall that according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the combustion of fossil fuels is one of the greatest contributors of greenhouse gases resulting in climate change. Despite this well-known fact, the fossil fuel Medusa raised its ugly heads against strong language advanced by the Indigenous youth caucus and the majority of the regional caucuses, who called for an immediate moratorium on new fossil fuel development and the phase-out of global fossil fuel use in the yet-to-be released Anchorage Declaration.

On the table was a perverse interpretation of Article 26 of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UN-DRIP). Article 26 provides in relevant part that: "Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use, as well as those which they have otherwise acquired."

One of the Indigenous regional caucuses asserted their right to development, citing Article 26 of UN-DRIP, and initially positioned themselves against any immediate call for a moratorium on new development of fossil fuels, and also a phase-out of global fossil fuel use. Instead, their interests would allow for compromise of softer language recognizing the right to development.

Contrary to what had been reported, many elders from the respective regional caucuses stood in solidarity with the youth and also vehemently opposed any soft language that would accommodate fossil fuel interests.

There is a false argument that appears to pit the right to development against the right to live—that is to say, the right to breathe clean air, to have access to ecologically bio-diverse food and medicines, to have meaningful access to places of spiritual well-being, water, forests and so on. These rights are all-encompassing rights articulated in the UN-DRIP, but must not be negated by a perverse interpretation of the right to develop.

The right to development, and any other right for that matter, must not compromise another individual's human rights. In the Americas and since 1492, most colonial models imposed upon Indigenous peoples to develop brought much social degradation in all forms. These models were, and continue to be, based on exploitative capitalistic development of Indigenous nations' natural resources and contradict the public health and welfare of Indigenous peoples. To see the effects of this exploitation, we simply need to reflect on our quality of health today as evidenced by disproportionate rates of diabetes, cancer, mental health trauma, suicide, heart disease, violence against Indigenous women and the stealing of Indigenous children by governments. The discussion must move from a colonial interpretation of a right to development to a right that sustains life. The inherent nature of the UN-DRIP is to sustain life, not to destroy it vis-à-vis development.

The Indigenous regional caucus who asserted their right to develop may be interpreted as a call for development that dignifies them, their environment and Mother Earth. Everyone must be enfranchised with the fundamental human right to develop and live well, but not to the disparagement of others. A sustainable development model must be consistent with UN-DRIP and the respective Indigenous Nations' autonomously identified needs.

According to the IPCC, the regions most affected, such as the Arctic, Caribbean and Amazon, are where most of the Indigenous people live, said Sam Johnston of the Tokyo-based United Nations University, a co-sponsor of the Summit. Those most affected are owed a significant ecological debt of reparations. If a down-payment is made on this debt to the creditors most impacted by climate change, we may consider this a well-overdue first step. 

Polluters and their regulators must pay by providing financial and other support mechanisms to Indigenous nations to secure their respective right to develop, economically and otherwise. Nation states, multinational corporations, and other entities that historically exploited and/or unlawfully appropriated Indigenous peoples' resources owe the ecological debt we speak of when we tell the world that the polluters must pay. Polluters and their regulators are the ones who allowed for the exploitation and appropriation of Indigenous resources that have hurled our Mother Earth into the perilous condition we find ourselves. 

I am willing to believe that if the proper resources were made available, and with free, prior and informed consent, the Indigenous regional caucus that sought softer language in the Declaration would not have opposed the call for a moratorium and phase-out of fossil fuel development, and instead, would have chosen to advance payment of the ecological debt owed to them for sustainable development.

That bill from Mother Earth and her Indigenous peoples was sent long ago. 

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