Think Forward blog

The Curious Case of Climate Policy and Corn Ethanol

Posted June 2, 2009

Corn ethanol supporters’ claims that the fuel reduces greenhouse gas emissions are tenuous, at best. But corn ethanol might end up being the key to getting climate policy—specifically, the Waxman-Markey cap and trade legislation—through Congress.

House Democratic leaders have vowed to move forward on the legislation, but a group of farm state representatives, including House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-MN), are threatening to derail the bill.

They mainly want two things: for agricultural offsets to be regulated by the USDA, not the EPA (although as of now, Waxman-Markey does not include the role of farms or forests in emissions reductions scenarios); and to get indirect land use change out of the formula for calculating biofuels’ greenhouse gas emissions in the revised Renewable Fuel Standard  (the RFS2 is part of the 2007 energy bill, and has nothing to do with Waxman-Markey). See my blog post related to indirect land use change here.

Rep. Peterson and the mainstream agriculture lobby don’t trust the EPA on agriculture, a feeling that was heartily confirmed when the agency made the decision to include indirect land use in the revised RFS. EPA-controlled climate credits, therefore, scare the heck out of them.

Peterson introduced a bill on May 14 that would ban indirect land use change from the RFS2, but despite its 46 co-sponsors, there’s been no sign yet from Congress that they’ll reopen negotiations on that part of the 2007 energy legislation. There’s no question, however, that Peterson and his supporters make up a large enough group to successfully stop Waxman-Markey if they so choose.

Whether Peterson gets his way on indirect land use or not, it’s clear that U.S. climate policy— both politically, as well as practically—will have to walk hand-in-hand with U.S. agriculture policy to succeed. We'll write more soon on the connection between agriculture and climate policy, and specifically on the ways agriculture can play an important role in mitigating climate change.

» Read the full post


Posted June 1, 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 28, 2009

The overcast, coastal-like mists have brought my attention to what is beneath all of the weeds that we are trying to stay on top of. And whenever I make a new pass through the field with the disc, I turn around to see swooping blue birds, yellow finches, and baby kill deer scurrying by to harvest the day's fresh offerings. My hand claps and whistles are never frequent enough to keep them away from our friend in the soil, Lumbricus terrestris.

The earthworm is a special sort of worm. Almost alone among its brethren, the earthworm does not inspire horror. In fact, the earthworm is almost alone among all invertebrates in the tenderness it inspires. Knowing that a worm in the sun is as good as dead—since its skin has no defense against desiccation—children often place them gently in the shadow of a log or cover them with a light handful of soil. We all remember our interaction as children with earthworms—be it a friend's earthworm box in their room or digging them up before going fishing with Dad. Without question, gardeners—above all—venerate the worm.

In his book Dirt: The Estatic Skin Under the Earth, William Bryant Logan points out much of what we already know: when worms are happy, there are lots of them. It is said that in a Danish forest soil, researchers have found a density of one million to one-and-a-half million worms per acre—more than two tons of worms! A rich grassland may bring up more than 500 worms out of a square-meter hole. This is not so remarkable when you recognize that eight relatively healthy worms will produce 1,500 offspring in half a year’s time.

The common earthworm is not native to the United States, having been brought over by colonists in the mid-nineteenth century. When it first appeared, it was not numerous. But as fields were cleared, its numbers increased to such a degree that the water of springs and wells became polluted by the number of dead worms. As often witnessed in nature, the corresponding introduction and increase of robins and other vermivores corrected the imbalance.

Regardless, the presence of earthworms is by and large a very good thing for the soil. Unlike a given fertilizer, it acts simultaneously on several different soil variables.

More than any other creature, the worm defines topsoil. Worms are basically blind; therefore, they see literally by eating. A worm is a long intestine. Soil, rich in dead organic matter, leaves, and especially manure, goes in one end and comes out the other—concentrated, enriched and well mixed—in the form of “castings.” Castings are so rich a source that at the farm I worked at last year, in preparation for making our potting mix, we would take a shovel and bucket into the woods, peel back a few leaves and collect two gallons per batch. It is said that a well-manured soil is almost always rich in worms. Up to ten tons of worm castings per acre per year enrich a soil under favorable conditions. The worm also senses and creates the topsoil in a very basic way: by going where the organic matter is, mixing it, and excreting it behind or above itself. Worms also bore down to the water table, but not into it. At the dry surface, too, they stop.

Some earthworms leave their castings on the surface, others in the body of the soil. These castings concentrate nutrients. Scientists estimate that worm castings contain five times more nitrogen, seven times more available phosphorus, 11 times more potash and 40 percent more humus than is usually found in the top six inches of soil. In addition, the castings mix the soil ingredients, facilitating further breakdown by microbes.

The earthworm's blindness does not hinder its motion; worms are pathfinders. A single acre of cultivated soil has been found to have more than six million worm channels whose presence significantly increases the soil’s ability to hold and percolate water. A clayey orchard soil had more than two million large channels—some the size of a little finger—in an acre, the equivalent of a two-inch drainage pipe! Others have found that down to a depth of four inches, up to 50 percent of the soil’s air capacity consists of the tunnels and cavities dug by worms.

Earthworms are the watchers of the soil. If you build soil, worms will come.

Now that our cover crops have been dried and turned under, the organic matter of which they are composed is the perfect food source for microorganisms and earthworms. As ecologically senstitive farming goes, large amounts of earthworms and microorganisms are often present in abundant numbers. We hope that our well-managed soil will pay off as we harvest for our first market this weekend and start our first distribution next Tuesday. Here's to the earthworm!   

» Read the full post

Toronto's Model on Local Food

Posted May 29, 2009

There are many remarkable, innovative leaders in the local and sustainable food movement around the world. Wayne Roberts of Toronto's Food Policy Council is one of them.

While energized communities in the U.S. are forming local food councils, Toronto has had one since 1991—and they've done some amazing stuff. Their food share program provides regionally raised food to 15,000 residents each month. They work closely with schools and institutions to increase production and purchasing of local food. They've targeted regional land preservation for agriculture and expanded the presence of community and rooftop gardens. And they have long been recycling food waste into compost. Finally, the Toronto area has been instrumental in developing Local Food Plus, a pioneering system that includes working conditions and environmental practices in certifying local farmers, processors and distributors.

When Wayne was in town last month for the American Planning Association annual meeting, we grabbed him for an interview.

» Read the full post

Have We Rejoined the World?

Posted May 28, 2009

This commentary first appeared in the Huffington Post.

In some ways, it is difficult to critique the new administration without feeling like one is blowing the wind out of the sails at a time when the "global" boat needs support to stay afloat. The Bush administration's unilateral approach to foreign relations isolated the U.S. and made it difficult to work with the global community to solve some of our most difficult challenges. To assess the Obama administration's efforts to re-engage with the world, we will consider four areas where global leadership is urgently needed: reinvigorating the United Nations, climate change, the food crisis, and trade.

One of President Obama's first actions was to appoint a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and to give her cabinet-level status. The U.S. also announced that it would seek a seat on the Human Rights Council. Both of these moves are a direct statement to the world that the U.S. is back at the U.N. and ready for global dialogue. These are important symbolic gestures. Yet the administration has not pushed for the ratification of any important treaties or conventions, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, that most other countries around the world have approved.

The Obama administration has made great strides by publicly recognizing that a climate change agreement is needed. However, this isn't enough. As climate talks proceed, the U.N. Secretary General has indicated that the world cannot wait for the United States. The U.S., as the largest emitter in the world, must act in bold ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But the administration has not been forceful enough at the domestic and international levels in pushing for an approach that sets a real cap for polluters, resulting in real greenhouse gas reductions. The administration has yet to sign the Kyoto Treaty, and it is still sorting out its policy agenda in Congress. So far, its proposed emissions cuts are lower than what other countries are promising. The U.S. has made no commitments to provide funds to least-developed, small island, and land-locked developing nations--countries that are urgently preparing for climate change.

In its response to the food crisis, the administration pledged to double its long-term agricultural development assistance to more than $1 billion this year alone. Yet much of this money is earmarked for new technology to increase food production in developing countries instead of addressing the real problems: the need for more access to food and investment in sustainable production methods. President Obama has not come out in support of food reserves--either in the form of a strategic grain reserve in the U.S. or global and regional reserves to address hunger. Meanwhile, the crisis grows.

The U.S. trade agenda is mostly stalled so President Obama is slightly off the hook--for now--although at this point, his trade agenda appears not much different than that of the Bush administration. During the election campaign, Obama expressed support for the renegotiation of NAFTA but has since backed away from this position. He is also working to expand so-called free trade by finalizing the Panama and Colombia FTAs, as well as completing the controversial Doha talks at the World Trade Organization.

In a nutshell, one of the more encouraging aspects of the new administration is that it acknowledges the need to work together at the global level on a variety of fronts. However, beyond the rhetoric, the Obama administration has much work to do to change its relationship with the world. This is the crux of the matter.

» Read the full post

Food's Risky Business

Posted May 26, 2009

In the latest issue of the Global Food Safety Monitor, IATP's Steve Suppan covers the communications challenges food companies and regulators face when food safety disasters strike. Suppan dissects the swine flu outbreak, new regulations on genetically modified foods in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and the absence of traceability on the food chain. Back issues and subscription info (it's free!) can be found at the Global Food Safety Monitor page.

» Read the full post

A Remarkable Shift in Food System Debates

Posted May 22, 2009

This article first appeared in Civil Eats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

» Read the full post

Seeing the forest through the corn

Posted May 21, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

» Read the full post

Responsibility for the Global Food Crisis

Posted May 19, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

» Read the full post

Getting mercury out of high fructose corn syrup

Posted May 15, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

» Read the full post

Land grabs

Posted May 14, 2009

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

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

» Read the full post