Think Forward blog

Reducing Our Foodprint

Posted April 9, 2009

Foodprint_Main_Feature Agriculture has a unique place in the debate on what to do about climate change. Perhaps no sector is more affected by changes in climate. Already farmers around the world are experiencing first-hand the effects of climate change. Agriculture and our food system is also a contributor to climate change—particularly energy intensive industrial agriculture. And finally, agriculture also has the potential to be a mitigator of climate change through carbon sequestration.

A new IATP paper, Identifying Our Climate Foodprint, examines the entire U.S. food chain, from agriculture production through processing, transportation and consumption. It assesses what we know on each step's contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and makes recommendations on how to transition toward a more climate-friendly system.

The paper concludes that throughout the food chain, it is industrial farming systems that depend on massive resource inputs (such as synthetic fertilizers) for crops and livestock that are by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases

“The good news is that by transitioning toward more sustainable practices on the farm, we can better adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change," said co-author Jim Kleinschmit in our press release. "Many farmers, food companies and consumers are already implementing climate-friendly practices. Now we need smarter public policy to make the larger systemic changes we need."

Check out the full report and find out what you can do to reduce your climate foodprint.

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Agriculture's emissions: on the road to exemption?

Posted April 8, 2009

IATP's Anne Laure Constantin is in Bonn, Germany, this week for global talks to develop a new international framework to address climate change. The Bonn meeting is leading up to the larger global climate meeting in Copenhagen in December 2009.

OK, seriously, no one dares to utter the word "exemption." But special treatment, certainly! Livestock exporters argue that agriculture should be considered a special case: there are limits to how much you can reduce methane emissions from cows and sheep. According to them, it is impossible to achieve similar emission reductions in agriculture as in other industrial sectors. Their ultimate argument is that imposing excessively strict limits on agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions could jeopardize global food security.

One idea they are floating around is that for agriculture, emission reduction targets should be expressed on an "intensity" basis. Countries with a large part of their emissions from agriculture—like New Zealand, Uruguay and Argentina—would be granted special treatment whereby they don't necessarily have to reduce their emissions in absolute terms, but rather, only the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted for a given quantity of product (say a ton of milk for example). The countries argue that since world food production will have to increase to fit the needs of a growing population, "realistic expectations" are necessary regarding the possibility of reducing emissions from the agriculture sector.

There is no formal proposal around this idea, but Bonn was an occasion to test the waters. Judging from the important New Zealand delegation (government and industry hand-in-hand) in Bonn, and the attractiveness of the idea to other countries as well (from South and Central America in particular... but there is no reason why the U.S. would not buy that too!), it could develop quite quickly.

That would be a very dangerous road to go down on. Agriculture represents around 12 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions, not counting associated emissions from deforestation, transport and processing of food products. Given that developed countries need to cut their emissions by at least 40 percent by 2020 (compared to 1990), it is unlikely they can afford to disregard such an important sector. Revising production methods in the crop sector will be one way to go, and quickly. It also becomes more and more clear that the typical Western diet based on heavy meat consumption will have to change.

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Agriculture: the next challenge for climate talks?

Posted April 6, 2009

IATP's Anne Laure Constantin is in Bonn, Germany, this week for global talks to develop a new international framework to address climate change. The Bonn meeting is leading up to the larger global climate meeting in Copenhagen in December 2009.

Awg_bonn_01_600 On Saturday, April 4, I attended a workshop focused on agriculture's contribution to mitigating climate change. That workshop was part of a session of negotiations on climate that has been requested by a large group of countries—mostly developed countries or agricultural exporters. It was organized by the UNFCCC, the UN body in charge of making sure an international deal is agreed to by the end of the year to avoid the devastating effects of global climate change.

I will be writing more about the prospects for agriculture and food in the context of these negotiations. In the meantime, just a few thoughts:

  • For those of you who are interested, you can watch the whole session (3 hours), or specific country interventions (about a dozen made presentations) here. You can also find the different PowerPoints that were presented on that same page;
  • All country representatives who spoke agreed that agriculture has to be part of the effort to fight climate change. The HOW is what remains to be answered! It was striking to see the wide range of countries' concerns: competitiveness issues (Saudi Arabia seems to be very worried that it won't be able to sell oil in the future!!), how to foster the development of technologies (including methane vaccines), the need to cope with immediate threats to food security, a focus on accessing climate funding, and so on.
  • While large exporters like New Zealand stressed that expectations on the possibility to reduce emissions from agriculture have to be realistic (i.e., small, at least for now), poor countries like Bangladesh and Senegal pointed out that mitigation was an absolute need if they were going to be able to keep producing. 

The climate talks are not moving fast enough. There is increasing concern around a possible failure to reach an agreement in Copenhagen at the end of 2009. Adding agriculture to the picture is very risky. But at the same time, ignoring it is impossible.

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A New Opportunity on Human Rights

Posted April 5, 2009

HRC Human rights advocates are thrilled with a recent decision by the Obama administration. On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department announced it would seek a seat on the Human Rights Council, an inter-governmental body within the U.N. system made up of 47 elected members. The U.N. Human Rights Council was created three years ago by the U.N. General Assembly with the main purpose of addressing human rights violations. At the time, the Bush administration and its ambassador to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, shunned the U.N. HR Council, consistent with the then U.S. policy of disengagement with the United Nations.

For water justice advocates, this is an interesting moment. Barely 10 days ago the United States government was in the forefront of efforts to thwart an initiative to declare water as a fundamental human right (meaning accessible and safe for all). The World Health Organization outlines the need for the right to water.

The venue was the triennial World Water Forum Ministerial in Istanbul from March 16-22. Though organized by the private French association World Water Council, this forum has evolved into one of the largest water events, and is accompanied by a ministerial session attended by most governments.Since 2000, the World Water Forum and its ministerial session has attracted protests and criticisms from rights advocates for its resistance to declare water as a fundamental human right.

In 2002, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued a General Comment confirming the right to water. Yet in 2003, the World Water Forum ministerial would only declare that water is a human need. This was repeated in 2006.

At each World Water Forum, spanning both the Clinton and Bush administrations, the United States took the position that water is a need, not a right!

This year, at the World Water Forum, after failing to reach agreement on the right to water within the Forum Ministerial, 25 countries--led by Venezuela, Uruguay and Bolivia--signed on to a statement declaring water as a fundamental human right. In a sense, that statement was a victory for human rights activists. But the final statement that came out on March 22 still does not say water is a human right. It said: "We acknowledge the discussions with the UN system regarding human rights and access to safe drinking water and sanitation. We recognize that access to safe drinking water and sanitation is a basic human need."

Unlike earlier ministerials, which had insisted that water was a human need, this one at least acknowledged the discussions in the U.N. system and left the decision to national spaces.

This acknowledgment was articulated best by U.S. State Department spokesman Andy Laine: "The United States does not oppose any government adopting a national right to water or sanitation as part of its own domestic policy. We do, however, have concerns with a statement that would require all countries to adopt a national right to water or sanitation or would establish an international right to water or sanitation."

Unfortunately, this position still undermines the work that has so far been done under the United Nations system toward the recognition of water as a fundamental human right.

Thus it is heartening to see the statement earlier this week from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on the Human Rights Council: "Human rights are an essential element of American global foreign policy...With others, we will engage in the work of improving the U.N. human rights system. . . . We believe every nation must live by and help shape global rules that ensure people enjoy the right to live freely and participate fully in their societies."

This reiteration of the need for global rules to help ensure that people enjoy the right to live freely and participate fully in their societies is an important reversal of decades of U.S. foreign policy that we need to celebrate.

There will of course be debate over what the "right to live freely and participate fully" involves. Still, Secretary Clinton’s statement gives us a new opportunity. Our next steps should be to ensure that human rights are understood in an inclusive way, so that U.S. policies on agriculture, trade and investments do not undermine, but instead support, peoples' rights, including the right to food, right to water and right to a healthy environment. In other words, to live freely and participate fully in their societies.

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The G-20's Opportunity on Speculation

Posted April 1, 2009

A new global poll finds that 70 percent of people across 24 countries believe that "major changes" are required to the way the global economy is run. A good place to start is the G-20 meeting scheduled to begin this week.

While greater regulation of financial markets is on the agenda, conspicuously absent are commodity exchanges. Last year, IATP published a report documenting the role of the excess speculation on commodity exchanges in the global food crisis. Last week, IATP and more than 180 organizations from around the world sent President Obama and congressional leaders a letter calling for greater regulation of commodity markets.

In a new commentary, IATP's Steve Suppan makes the case that the G-20 should include tougher  regulation of commodity exchanges on their agenda, because of the broad influence commodity exchanges have over food and gas prices around the world. The G-20 should get the ball rolling, but Steve writes that ultimately, a global approach to regulating commodity exchanges needs to come through the G-192 at the United Nations.

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Farm Leader Merle Hansen Died March 27, 2009

Posted March 31, 2009

A dear friend of IATP has passed away. Merle Hanson was a farmer whose gentle and loving way taught a whole generation of farm activists what democracy meant. If you read his obituary, you will see that his life describes the sweep of history that covers modern agriculture in its entirety. At each phase, from farm strikes to presidential campaigns, Merle was always present to represent farmers and to ensure that justice was at the root of all we did.

For those of us who came to the farm movement in the 1970s, Merle was the crucial bridge between the old New Deal farm movement of the 1930s, Farmers Union, the National Farmers Organization and the emerging sustainable agriculture movement. The Cold War and red scares of the 1950s and '60s had driven many progressives away from social movements. This was true across the entire spectrum of social movements in the United States. When a new generation of activists appeared in the 1960s and '70s, progressive leaders like Merle were few and far between. It took real courage to stand up to the fear-mongering and anti-Communism that dominated the nation. Merle introduced young farm activists to the old leaders who had created the successful farm programs of the New Deal. He and his family in Newman Grove, Neb., were our link back to the old prairie populists. It was Merle who taught us the importance of learning from those who came before and the need to keep moving forward, never losing sight of what was worth fighting for.

No matter what decade, no matter what struggle farmers were going through, Merle was always there. I’ve lost track of dates, but I remember a night in the mid-'70s, in the small town of Defiance, Iowa, where a couple hundred angry farm families were gathered at a Catholic church to kick off a tractor rally that would take them to Washington, D.C. The organizers of the tractorcade—the leaders of a new farm organization called the American Agriculture Movement (AAM)—asked to meet with Merle and Fred Stover, an Iowa farm leader, after the meeting. I was invited along to help with the nighttime driving.

The AAM guys had called on farmers from all over the country to drive their tractors across the country to Washington to tell the government that all was not well back on the farm, and they had thousands getting ready to drive. That night in Defiance, the local priest had the crowd so worked up that I started edging toward the door, fearing something violent would happen. We all knew this level of outrage and desperation was being felt in every farm community in the country. After the rally, we met the AAM leaders at a motel on the edge of town. They were a little nervous, about six or seven big guys all standing against the wall, nobody feeling comfortable enough to sit on the bed. After a few minutes of hemming and hawing one of them finally said, “Well, we hear you fellows are little pink, but we need your help. We’ve got a lot of people ready to go to Washington, but we don’t know what to ask for when we get there. We know it’s not working, but we need some help saying what it is we want the government to do.”

There was a short silence as we let the pink comment pass and then Fred and Merle went through some farm policy history, and how we got into the mess we were in. Fred said Merle was the best person to help them out in Washington, and without hesitation Merle agreed to go. He helped shape their campaign for parity—the concept that farmers should receive a fair price for the food and fiber they produce.

There will be so many stories told about Merle in the coming months, and I hope to hear as many of them as possible. For instance, I look forward to hearing again from Arie van den Brand, IATP’s board chair from the Netherlands, about the summer he spent driving across the Midwest in an RV with Merle, going farm to farm to talk with people—lots of stories there. Merle’s life was full of grace and wit and love. He gave those of us with so much less experience and knowledge the hope and belief that our actions do make a difference.

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Posted March 30, 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.

March 24, 2009

1 The greenhouses have been a whirlwind lately. Between hustling the endless trays of newly seeded lettuce (round II), cabbage, kale, chard, kohlrabi, peppers and snapdragons, we've been attempting to squeeze tables together to see how many we can fit in the big greenhouse. Somewhere in the process we’ve been setting up a new heating system (see right).

2 Local farmers claim that this new Instant-On Hot Water system will reduce our propane bill down to 10 percent of the original cost (see water tubes, left). Trial-by-fire is our motto, since we are only the third farmers in the area to implement such a system.

Across the river Ron and Kate Khosla put in a similar system at Huguenot Street Farm, and they have been an excellent resource in our new endeavor. As a side note, Ron has worked at length with the United Nations, and has been hired by the UN-FAO as an International Organic Certification Consultant. He designed a Participatory Guarantee Scheme (PGS) for India's Organic Agriculture Council, which is now operating successfully with tens of thousands of farmers. He has worked closely with an alternative certification system—Certified Naturally Grown—enabling growers who meet USDA organic standards to avoid the bureaucracy and paperwork associated with becoming USDA Certified. On a personal level, he has been a great asset in discussing the national and worldwide implications of linking policy and farming.

3 The second grower in the area using the Instant-On system is Jack Algiere in Pocantico Hills at the Stone Barns Center (see right). Jack is another young grower who has become a great inspiration to me. He grows year-round for chef extraordinaire Dan Barber at Blue Hill Restaurant at Stone Barns. Just this past week we visited Stone Barns, where Jack showed us their $2 million Dutch greenhouse and walked us through square foot greenhouse numbers in relation to economic viability for year-round production. 

4 This is a topic both Tim and I have focused on at length while a part of the year-round CSA at Michigan State (see left).

The main purpose of our visit to Stone Barns was to meet with long-time farmer and food systems thinker, Fred Kirschenmann, the President of Stone Barns. I’m still happily writing down notes from the discussion.

5 The farm here in Beacon is moving along. It’s amazing what the sun has done to our spring cover crops. The fields are beaming with mammoth red clover and I’ve noticed evidence of hairy vetch in last year's winter squash patch. Both are leguminous and will therefore fix nitrogen to our soils if able to grow long enough. Along with the sprouting of cover crops, we are unfortunately already seeing weed growth, the majority of which is chickweed. In response, we’ve taken to weeding the garlic and taking a trip to the local municipality to inquire about obtaining leaf mulch. Leaves are not only a great phosphorus additive for crops like garlic but help prevent weed growth, conserve moisture and are free! When garlic harvest rolls around you can turn them in, which adds an excellent source of organic matter to your soils.

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Time to sign up for a CSA share!

Posted March 26, 2009

Spring is coming…really. Now is the time to sign up for your community-supported agriculture (CSA) share—farm subscriptions are filling up fast! Community-supported agriculture is a concept where consumers pay upfront at the beginning of the season and then receive a weekly box of farm fresh, seasonal produce from approximately June into October.

There are many reasons why I love CSAs. I love to support local, sustainable agriculture. I love knowing where my food is coming from and what's happening on the farm. Finally, thanks to the CSA, my husband and I eat exponentially more vegetables than we would ever buy on our own.

If you're in Minnesota you can get started by checking out the Land Stewardship Project's CSA Farm Directory. Nationally, Local Harvest has an excellent directory of CSAs. Try not to get overwhelmed by the number of farms to choose from. In my opinion, the main factor to consider is the pick-up location. It must be convenient, and on a day of the week that makes sense for you. If you head out to the cabin every weekend, either a Thursday pick-up would be perfect—you'll have lots of delicious veggies to eat over the weekend—or not ideal, if the veggies sit and wilt in your 'fridge, waiting for your return. Also, think about splitting a share with a neighbor or friend.

Many farms offer farm access. These days, it seems few farms are requiring member work days. However, if you LIKE getting your hands dirty, most farms welcome the help. Many farms have festival days throughout the summer, which is a great outing for kids.

A CSA share is a great investment—and also a great value. The cost of my CSA breaks down to $12 per week each for my husband and me. It's a good deal. My other key CSA recommendation is to pick up a copy of Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. This is one of my favorite cookbooks (and I'm hardly a vegetarian); not so much a collection of recipes as tons of really accessible advice on how to fix every possible vegetable. I guarantee that it will help you get the most out of your CSA share.

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Why Don't We Have Sustainable Agriculture Now?

Posted March 24, 2009

Dr. Richard Levins, Professor Emeritus of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota and former IATP Senior Fellow, gets to the heart of one of the biggest challenges we face in agriculture. In a March 1 speech at Iowa State University, Dr. Levins uses a matter-of-fact style to challenge some of the conventional ideas about why sustainable agriculture isn't more widely practiced in the U.S., such as not having enough field research, farmer education or proof of the profitability of sustainable agriculture.

"Why has it been so difficult to bring about sustainable agriculture on a large scale in the United States?" Dr. Levins asks. "I think we would be closer to answering these questions if we face the fact that farmers no longer sit in the driver's seat of our contemporary food system. We are entirely too quick to say, for example, that we have problems with farm chemicals because farmers use them, not because farm chemical companies develop, manufacture and promote them. Clearly, farmers are not the decision makers in poultry production and much of hog production due to contracting. Beyond that, the economic environment in which farmers work is increasingly established by agribusiness and retailers, not by farmers."

As Dr. Levins points out, to make the system-wide transition toward sustainable agriculture, we must acknowledge who controls the food system. "Not only does money talk in our food system, more and more it shouts," Dr. Levins writes. Farmers and consumers need more decision-making power in the food system. But, Dr. Levins writes, "We cannot pretend that they do when they are mere ants among elephants in our food system. Rather, we must contemplate an economic structure in which they have real and substantial control." Read the full speech here.

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How to Strengthen Global Food Safety

Posted March 20, 2009

When it comes to public health issues, the global food system is a mess. Food safety standards vary greatly from country to country, as does the enforcement of those standards. How do we clean up this mess? A new issue brief has some answers.

Last year, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) issued a series of reports on various aspects of the global food system. IATP's Steve Suppan was the lead editor of "Food Safety, Plant and Animal Health: Human Health and Sustainability Dimensions."

According to the brief, "Foodborne disease is estimated to affect 30 percent of the population in industrialized countries at some time in a given year. In developing countries, foodborne disease accounts for an estimated 2.1 million deaths annually."

The brief outlines the difficult challenges of foodborne disease for human health as well as plant and animal health. It highlights the existing international regulatory frameworks and lays out a series of policy options, including: strengthening surveillance systems, establishing regional or national food safety trust funds, expanding WTO "aid for trade" commitments to include food safety infrastructure, providing increased international support for food safety measures and standards, and investing in public funds to promote participation of small-scale farmers.

Thus far, the IAASTD report hasn't received the attention it deserves. It includes the wisdom of several hundred experts from around the world, the support of international agencies like the United Nations and the World Bank, and was endorsed by 57 countries. Finding the political will to transfer the IAASTD's recommendations into action continues to be a struggle. On food safety, we can't afford to wait.

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