Think Forward blog

IATP at the World Social Forum in Belém

Posted January 27, 2009 by Alexandra Strickner   

IATP's Alexandra Strickner is reporting from the 9th World Social Forum in Belém, Brazil.

From January 27-February 1, the 9th World Social Forum will take place in Belém, in Pará state, Brazil. The city is one of Brazil's busiest ports, about 60 miles upriver from the Atlantic Ocean. Belém is built on a number of small islands intersected by channels and other rivers.

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High fructose corn syrup's not-so-sweet surprise: mercury!

Posted January 26, 2009

There's been ongoing debate about the healthfulness of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), but no one talked about mercury contamination. Until now, that is. 

Two new reports issued today show that commercial HFCS is routinely contaminated with mercury, as are many foods and beverages where HFCS is a major ingredient. Read more about it at:

0109_mercuryreport One chemical critical for making HFCS is caustic soda. It used to be that nearly all caustic soda came from chlorine plants using something called mercury cell technology. Caustic soda from those plants, many of which are still operating, can be contaminated with mercury. Mercury-grade caustic soda can then contaminate the HFCS and other products made from it with mercury. Newer, mercury-free processes for making chlorine and caustic soda are available, and more efficient as well.

An environmental health officer with the Food and Drug Administration discovered the problem several years ago. She tested 20 samples of commercial HFCS and found mercury in about half of them (9/20). But then the FDA did nothing about it, apparently for years. Now retired from the FDA, she and co-authors published their findings today in the peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Health.

Learning of the issue, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy went out and bought 55 kinds of soda pop and beverages, salad dressings, chocolate milk, barbecue sauce, yogurt and other items where HFCS was #1 or #2 on the label.


We found total mercury detectable in about a third of them. They include some of the most widely recognized brands in America, many of them marketed to children. Table A of our larger report gives the full list of what we found.


The good news is that in 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama introduced a bill that would phase out mercury cell technology in chlorine plants. Let's hope he carries on that effort in the White House.


We also suggest that food companies stop buying their HFCS from plants still using outdated mercury cell technology, and that consumers stop buying their food products until they’ve done so.


This is a source of mercury we shouldn’t have to put up with.

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Access to Healthy Food

Posted January 23, 2009

Many people in Minneapolis, including entire neighborhoods, lack access to healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate foods. Last year, IATP organized a series of roundtable discussions with Minneapolis community members to talk about the food they buy. Participants represented a diversity of ages and backgrounds, and discussed their personal experiences and perceptions regarding food access in their communities.

Several key themes emerged from the discussions:

  • Improving access is critical to increasing consumption of healthy foods. Simply knowing what
    to eat is not enough; people need sources of affordable, accessible food to make those healthy
    food choices.
  • “Access” means more than physical access to food. Other factors, including affordability, time to
    prepare food and cultural traditions, are often important in determining whether people will buy
    and consume healthier food.
  • Farmers markets and other community-based initiatives are important and successful ways to
    increase access to healthy foods. However, they must be coupled with efforts to influence public
    policy and address the larger societal and environmental issues that hinder access to and
    consumption of healthier options.

LF_O_4 You can read more about the roundtables here. The discussions drew the connection between food produced locally and health. This year, IATP will be working with the city on a new initiative called Homegrown Minneapolis, designed to increase the number of farmers markets, expand community gardening and urban agriculture, and boost the use of locally grown foods in restaurants and grocery stores.

Minnesota has the potential to be a national leader in local food use and production. An October study published in the Journal of Extension found that Minnesota had the potential to meet 90 percent of its food needs through local production—the highest percentage in the country.

We'll be following policies and market developments that affect local food systems at our new Local Foods Web page.

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Thinking Big

Posted January 20, 2009

As he was sworn in today, President Barack Obama made the case for big ideas. Small, incremental changes aren't going to cut it. In a new book, Thinking Big, IATP and the Progressive Ideas Network combine bold ideas with specific policy proposals for the Obama administration.

IATP's Jim Harkness and Alexandra Spieldoch write about how the United States can re-engage with the world through a new era of multilateralism grounded in human rights. Such an approach would involve: greater engagement with the United Nations and the international treaty system; leading on climate change and other global environmental challenges; support for a new set of trade rules that reflect the public interest (not just private corporations); and using food sovereignty as a lens to assess global food and agriculture policies.

You can view a short video, read the table of contents or connect with the progressive organizations who contributed at the Thinking Big Web site.

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Speculating on Oil and Food

Posted January 13, 2009

Last night, 60 Minutes ran an excellent piece on the role of Wall Street speculators in driving the price of oil up and then down. The piece, produced by Leslie Cockburn, concluded that over the last several years, speculation dictated oil prices more than the traditional fundamentals of supply and demand. The show chronicled the influence of large financial investors, including Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, on oil prices. And it explained the role of congressional legislation, passed in 2000 and pushed by Enron, to deregulate the commodity futures market and open the door for speculators.

The role of speculation in driving volatility in oil prices mirrors the conclusions of our paper last year on the role of speculation in driving agriculture price volatility and contributing to the global food crisis. Many big commodity index funds bundle oil and agriculture commodities together. So, when the price of oil shot up, so did the price of agriculture commodities.

As the New York Times editorial board pointed out last week, President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is Gary Gensler, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker who actually oversaw the drafting of the key 2000 bill that deregulated the commodity futures market and contributed to increased speculation. As part of his confirmation hearing, Gensler should explain his support of the disastrous 2000 bill, what he'll do to fix it, and outline what steps he will take to limit excessive speculation in food and energy.

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The Tar Sands and NAFTA

Posted January 9, 2009

Ian Austen of the New York Times had an excellent article Wednesday on oil extraction from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Canada is now the largest oil supplier to the U.S. The article outlines the various environmental concerns of this extremely energy intensive operation, including impacts on greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution and migratory birds.

One important driver the article doesn't get into is the role of NAFTA in tar sands development, or more specifically the role of NAFTA's Proportionality Clause (see analysis by the Parkland Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives). This clause is so crazy it's hard to believe. It actually requires Canada to make two-thirds of its domestic oil production and 60 percent of its current natural gas production available for export to the U.S. These requirements stay in effect, even if Canada needs these supplies for domestic purposes. There is little question that Canada's NAFTA-burden is contributing to further tar sands development.

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The Good Work of 2008

Posted January 6, 2009

At the beginning of a new year, it's always worth looking back on the good work of the last year before we are humbled by the work to come. Thanks to John Nichols of The Nation for toasting the good work being done by progressives—people and organizations—in 2008. We thank him for naming IATP as the "Most Valuable Policy Group" for our work on the global food crisis, particularly two papers by our Trade and Global Governance team: Commodities Market Speculation: The Risk to Food Security and Agriculture and Bridging the Divide: A Human Rights Vision for Global Food Trade.

If 2008 was the year of crisis (financial, food, climate, etc.), let's hope 2009 is the year of solutions.

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Will Obama Keep NAFTA Promise?

Posted January 5, 2009

Last week, on January 1, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) celebrated its 15th anniversary. You weren't invited to the party? Don't feel left out: neither were most U.S., Mexican and Canadian citizens. Over the last 15 years, NAFTA has become short-hand for a disastrous U.S. free trade agenda that has trampled over workers, farmers, consumers and the environment.

Nafta_4_issue Will we see a change in U.S. trade policy in 2009? During last year's election, President-elect Barack Obama pledged to "amend the North American Free Trade Agreement." According to the campaign's Web site, "Obama and Biden believe NAFTA and its potential were oversold to the American people."

Earlier today, 60 civil society organizations (including IATP) sent a letter to Obama urging him to follow through on his promise to renegotiate NAFTA. The letter prioritized ten areas for renegotiation: agriculture, energy, foreign investment, financial services, the state and services, employment, migration, environment, intellectual property rights and dispute settlement provisions. The recommendations are based on a set of proposals developed last year by civil society organizations from the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

In a press release, IATP's Dennis Olson commented on the need for new agriculture rules under NAFTA: "To be effective, any new approach to trade must take into account that agriculture and food are unique and should not fall under the same trade rules as TV sets. Countries must have the policy flexibility to address the current global food crisis."

As the debate about NAFTA takes place in the U.S., it's important to recognize the damage this agreement has caused to all three countries. As Kevin Gallagher and Tim Wise of Tuft's Global Development and Environment Institute wrote recently in the Guardian, "Estimates vary, but Mexico probably gained about 600,000 jobs in the manufacturing sector since NAFTA took effect, but the country lost at least two million in agriculture, as cheap imports of corn and other commodities flooded the newly liberalized market."

Job creation and revitalizing the staggering U.S. economy will be at the top of the new Obama team's agenda in 2009. A new approach to trade, and NAFTA, will have to be an essential part of any economic recovery plan.

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New U.S. Trade Rep Will Face a Big Job

Posted December 22, 2008

It's hard to know what to say about President-elect Barack Obama's selection of Ron Kirk as the next U.S. Trade Representative. He has relatively little international experience and really no international trade experience to speak of. The selection may support some of what Representative Xaviar Becerra said when he announced he was turning down the job, "I don't see how it can be the front-burner issue for him (Obama), nor should it be, quite honestly."

A cooling off period on new trade agreements may be a good thing as we turn to the serious business of setting a new course on U.S. trade policy. Below is our press release from Friday on the Kirk announcement:

President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for the next U.S. Trade Representa¬tive, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, must fix a broken U.S. trade policy, which has caused enormous harm to farmers, workers, communities and the environment, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

Kirk’s public record on U.S. trade policy is thin—particularly for agriculture. “We look forward to finding out more about Ron Kirk’s positions on trade,” said IATP President Jim Harkness. “We hope he recognizes that the push to blindly deregulate trade has failed not only people in the U.S., but also people around the world. To build a better approach to trade, we must put people and the environment at the center. Recognizing the importance of basic human rights is a critical start. A new approach must also recognize that agriculture and food are unique and should not fall under the same trade rules as tv sets. Countries must have the policy flexibility to address the current global food crisis. We look forward to working with the new trade representative to ensure that more voices, not just big business, are at the table as we develop a more fair and sustainable approach to trade.”

Kirk has a number of major tasks ahead of him, including:
• Following through on President-elect Obama’s campaign pledge to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement. A commitment to review provisions on the environment and labor rights are a start. But NAFTA’s investment provisions, which empower corpora¬tions over governments, and agriculture rules, which have devastated rural communities and increased food insecurity, must be renegotiated with a stronger emphasis on human rights and sustainable development.

• An increasing number of bilateral and other free trade agreements reproduce the unfair and destructive features of NAFTA. The Bush administration expanded bilateral agreements to include conditions on military cooperation. We must undo the militarization of trade policy.

• The recent food crisis has shown that poor countries need to reduce their dependence on imported food and focus on strengthening their domestic agriculture. U.S. trade policy shouldn’t continue to insist on forcing open markets in basic food crops and instead should allow developing countries the space to protect their own food security.

• The World Trade Organization’s Doha Round negotiations are stalled, largely because the agreement does not fulfill its original mandate: to help poor countries. It’s time for a fresh approach to the multilateral trading system, starting with scrapping the Doha Round and re-thinking global trade rules to improve the lives of people and support human rights.

• The administration must work closely with Congress in the new fair trade climate. U.S. vot¬ers strongly supported fair trade candidates, adding an additional 40 fair trade supporters to the House and five new fair trade challengers to the Senate in November. The TRADE Act, sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Rep. Michael Michaud (D-ME), requires an assessment of existing trade agreements and helps to chart a new course.

IATP has been working on international trade issues for over 20 years. You can read more about international trade at:

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Advice for the New President on Re-engaging with the World

Posted December 19, 2008

Without question, one of the major challenges for President-elect Barack Obama will be to improve relations with the rest of the world after a disastrous eight years. At this point, we don't have a choice. Too many of the crises facing the U.S. domestically (the economy, climate, agriculture and food) are actually global in nature and will require global cooperation.

We are fortunate at IATP to have six international board members—each of whom are significant civil society leaders in their own right. When they visited Minneapolis in November, we asked them how the Obama administration could take immediate concrete and symbolic steps to become a positive force in the global community. We got some interesting responses.

IATP Board Chair Arie van den Brand, former member of the Dutch parliament, spoke about the importance of actively engaging in global climate talks. Dr. Candido Gryzbowski, General Director of the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE) and one of the founders of the World Social Forum, spoke on the need for the U.S. to stop imposing its power in an imperialistic way on other countries. Mika Iba, of the National Coalition for Safe Food and Environment in Japan, spoke about the necessity of allowing other countries to establish stronger food safety regulations. Dr. Joseph Rocher, of the European Network of Food and Agriculture (NGOs), asked that the U.S. stop militarizing trade deals. And Canadian public interest lawyer Stephen Shrybman discussed how a better U.S. energy policy could improve relations with Canada.

You can watch short videos from each of IATP's international board members, as well as view a post-election evening presentation by all of them at our homepage.

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