Think Forward blog

Monsanto Sells Off BGH

Posted August 22, 2008

It didn't take long for Monsanto to unload its controversial milk hormone business. On Wednesday, Eli Lilly announced that it would pay Monsanto $300 million for its recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (also known as Posilac) business.

Two weeks ago, we wrote about the nearly 15-year battle over rBGH and the strong consumer and business rejection of the product. You have to wonder whether Eli Lilly understands what it is getting into. In a Dow Jones story, Jeff Simmons, president of Lilly's Elanco animal-health unit, implied that the criticism of rBGH has come only from "small groups." But we have to agree with Wenonah Hauter at Food and Water Watch, "Eli Lilly is not helping its shareholders by buying a product that the marketplace is already abandoning."

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U.S. Sustainable Agriculture Through Chinese Eyes

Posted August 21, 2008

“You should tell more people around the world about America’s non-mainstream agriculture and food system. Then they won’t hate you so much!” This was the blunt advice I got from Professor Wen Tiejun, as I bade him farewell at the Minneapolis airport in September 2006. Wen, an old acquaintance and influential advisor to the Chinese leadership on agricultural issues, had stopped in Minnesota for a few days on his way to give a lecture at Harvard University. During his visits with IATP staff and his lecture at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, he had been surprised at how many people seemed to agree with his harsh critique of U.S. industrial agriculture and the policies that support it. He was even more surprised when I took him to visit The Wedge, America’s largest grocery co-operative, and several Community Supported Agriculture farms. Where was the McDonald’s and KFC, the junk food? Where were the massive government subsidies and terrible environmental damage? The emergence of a fairer and more sustainable way of growing and selling food within the home of globalized industrial agriculture (Cargill is based in Minnesota, after all) was a bit of a shock to this champion of China’s small, family farmers.

At first glance, farming in China and the U.S. seem to have nothing in common. China has about 300 million farms, the U.S. only 2 million. The average farm size in the U.S. is about 450 acres, and it’s not uncommon for a farmer to have a million dollars or more tied up in machinery. A typical farm in China covers only about one acre, and family members do much of the cultivation by hand. And although China’s communes were broken up over 25 years ago, ownership of farmland remains in the hands of village governments or the State. But despite these huge differences, a closer look reveals similar challenges facing farmers in both countries. In both places:

  • farmers are losing their land or getting stuck in contract arrangements that make them effectively hired hands on their own farms;
  • supply chains are getting longer and more complex, cutting into farmers’ profits and endangering food safety;
  • over-dependence on chemical inputs and a narrowing range of hybrid seed varieties is poisoning the environment, threatening human health and taking more and more control of the food system out of the hands of the people who grow or eat food and putting it under the control of corporations.

To foster greater understanding between Americans and Chinese about the farming systems in each country, and share some of Minnesota’s experience with sustainable agriculture, we decided to invite a student from Professor Wen’s School of Agriculture and Rural Development to spend a season on an American farm. The School, part of People’s University, was involved in experiments with rural cooperatives, and following Wen’s visit to IATP had worked to develop pioneering Community Supported Agriculture and consumer food co-operative projects. To gain a better understanding of how a working CSA operates, incoming doctoral candidate Shi Yan arrived in Minnesota in the second week of April 2008 to start a 5-month internship at the Earthrise Farm.

Ms. Shi has been blogging in Chinese about her experiences at Earthrise, a small CSA farm run by two Catholic nuns near the Minnesota-South Dakota border, since the day she arrived. We present translated selections from her blog entries to date, and will upload subsequent entries until the end of her sojourn, which she wryly refers to as a contemporary twist on the Cultural Revolution movement to send educated youths to the countryside.

(Ed. note: this entry was written by IATP President Jim Harkness)

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Global Food Safety Takes Center Stage

Posted August 13, 2008

We've written a lot about holes in the U.S. food safety inspection system. But when it comes to food, we live in a global system. Food contamination in one country can affect consumers in multiple countries. Can we improve the safety of food transported around the world?

In a new e-newsletter, Global Food Safety Monitor, IATP's Steve Suppan will cover the challenges of setting strong international food safety regulations that protect public health. In the first issue, Steve writes about the U.S.-Korea Beef dispute, attempts to reach a food safety agreement between the U.S. and China, and a U.S. dispute with the European Union over chicken exports.

As Steve writes, "This bulletin will provide analytic context for what might otherwise appear as 'isolated incidents' of food contamination, livestock abuse, regulatory violations and/or complaints of the unfair use of standards to block trade. Many of these incidents are not isolated after all. They are symptoms of a broken global food system that urgently needs broad reform."

You can go here if you are interested in subscribing to this free quarterly newsletter.

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One mini-market at a time

Posted August 11, 2008

In the U.S., a food desert has been described as a large geographic area where mainstream grocery stores are absent. Most U.S. food deserts are found in low-income communities where residents often struggle to find fresh fruits and vegetables.

This summer, IATP helped organize six mini-farmers markets in low-income communities in Minneapolis. The mini-farmers markets, made up of five or fewer vendors, are a low cost way to bring healthy, local produce to any neighborhood. The mini-markets are hosted and managed by local community organizations at major community centers like apartment buildings, churches and busy street corners. Each mini-market is authorized to accept government food assistant coupons to purchase fruits and vegetables.

These markets are already providing many benefits beyond just healthy food. Small-scale farmers targeting the Twin Cities' market are making additional sales. The markets are strengthening a sense of community by connecting neighbors. And the markets are linked to local food shelves, who receive hundreds of pounds of unsold produce donated by the vendors.

The mini-markets became possible after working closely with the City of Minneapolis to develop a simplified approval process for community organizations who wanted to start a farmers market. To help other organizations interested in starting their own mini-market, IATP and the City of Minneapolis have published a "how-to" guide, which includes everything you need to know about licensing, government assistance programs, and finding farmers and locations to sell.

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Can Global Institutions Help Solve the Food Crisis?

Posted August 8, 2008

How can global institutions better respond to the food crisis? In a new article in Foreign Policy in Focus, IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch analyzes the response to the food crisis by the UN, the WTO and World Bank, and calls for a new Global Food Convention to directly address food sovereignty and the agricultural dimension of climate change.

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Monsanto's Step Back

Posted August 7, 2008

Monsanto's announcement yesterday that it was selling its much-maligned milk hormone business was a watershed event for those critical of the biotech industry. Monsanto decided to cut its losses in the milk business and focus on counting all the money they're making selling Roundup herbicide and biotech seeds. It's a testament to the company's stubbornness that it took 15 years to finally drop the product, despite polls showing that 80 percent of consumers didn't want their milk from cows injected with the hormone.

Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), marketed as Posilac, was one of the first agriculture biotech products on the market when it was introduced in 1993. It was marketed to dairy farmers as a way to increase milk production. The downside was that it also increased udder infections, forcing farmers to increase their antibiotic use, which, among other effects, increased the potential to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Additionally, the hormone raised levels of IGF-1 in cows and cow's milk. There is a concern that IGF-1 levels in milk might be passed on to humans, and increase the risk of certain types of cancer. Healthcare Without Harm has a good backgrounder on health concerns with rBGH.

When rBGH-produced milk hit the market it sparked outrage from many consumer groups. There were milk dumps in front of grocery stores. Monsanto fought back aggressively in the media. Public relations firms attempted to infiltrate and spy on consumer groups opposed to rBGH.

But ultimately what killed rBGH was consumer labeling. Consumers wanted rBGH-free milk and were willing to pay for it. Monsanto took extraordinary steps to keep consumers in the dark about rBGH-free milk. Last year, Monsanto went to the FDA and FTC asking that dairy companies stop using "deceptive advertizing" in labeling their milk hormone-free. Earlier this year, the company took the battle to the states, trying to go state-by-state to restrict labeling. Consumers Union was a leader in blocking this effort. In the meantime, Monsanto sued companies directly who labeled their milk BGH-free.

But the consumers' voice was too powerful and it carried up the food chain. Companies like Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Kroger, and Dean Foods began to sell milk only from cows that were not treated with artificial hormones. Many of these companies do business around the world where every other major industrialized country had rejected rBGH for use, including Canada, all of Europe and Japan.

We've written a lot here about market power and concerns that U.S. agribusiness has too much. Score one for the market power of consumers.

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We Need a New Global System

Posted August 6, 2008

As the failed seven-year odyssey to complete the Doha Round of negotiations at the WTO has shown, we need to start developing new systems of global governance. This is particularly true when it comes to agriculture and food.

A series of three reports IATP published today look in detail at how global institutions like the WTO, World Bank and IMF have undermined basic human rights, stalled international development and harmed the environment. The reports are part of our "New Global Contract" series, which highlights conflicts between global institutions and internationally-recognized rights, and points toward more accountable and sustainable alternatives.

Values in Conflict: How Trade and Finance Rules Curtail Our Rights, by Andre du Plessis, maps out where global trade and finance systems directly conflict with the environment, human rights, publlic health and agriculture.

Promoting Human Rights and the Environment in Trade and Finance Rules, by Maria Julia Oliva, identifies successful strategies by civil society groups to challenge unfair multilateral rules.

A Framework for Rebalancing Global Norms, by John Foster, analyzes the role of global trade and financial institutions in undermining human rights, and identifies strategies for global organizing in support of a new system.

As IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch put it in our press release, "From volatile financial markets to skyrocketing oil prices, food riots and the growing gap between rich and poor - the current system is not sustainable. The food and climate crises compel us to re-build a new global system based on the needs of people, communities and the environment."

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Another Collapse of the WTO

Posted July 31, 2008

After 20 years the fun has gone out of this story. A year ago we discussed at IATP the idea of setting up a clock that would mark the time since the Doha round began to highlight how deep the disagreements were. It was back when every other month WTO Director General Pascal Lamy would say something like, “a final agreement is within reach.” Mercifully, they stopped the charade and called it quits for now. But the truth of the matter is that the clock stopped on the WTO in 1994.

The Uruguay Round, which transformed the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) into the World Trade Organization (WTO) was launched in 1986. Eight years later, there was still no agreement. Everyone points to the Agreement on Agriculture as the stumbling block, but given delegates’ inability to solve the agriculture issues, it is hard to believe that other big topics like banking, insurance and telecoms – what the WTO calls “services” – would have been much easier.

To get past the obstacle of agriculture, and declare the Uruguay Round completed, the WTO artfully created the “Built-in  Agenda” of issues not yet resolved, to be taken up at subsequent ministerials. This sleight of hand allows diplomats and negotiators to run back to their capitols saying we had a success and we gave away nothing! The Built-in Agenda is still pending.

Having attended most of the WTO ministerials, it is my impression that the closest they came to an agreement was in Seattle. Of course, this may seem hard to believe, given the tens of thousands of demonstrators, the police riot and the virtual lockdown of the WTO meeting, but for those of us who sat up those tense nights with pounding headaches from the swamp of tear gas that covered downtown, it seemed very close indeed. The United States was chairing the meeting. Many delegates were absent either because the chaos in the streets prevented them from getting to the hall, or because they chose not to enter out of solidarity with the citizens being gassed and pummeled in the street. And at the WTO, not being present is counted as a yes vote. The U.S. and its European partners were pushing through measure after measure. On top of the other forms arm twisting to get their way, an empty hall was a golden opportunity for developed countries to move an agenda that would further their goals.

NGOs from around the world met to strategize at IATP’s Media Center, located in the historic Town Hall in Seattle, with one half of the building in the police curfew area and the other half outside. Who did we know? How could we get information into delegate’s mail boxes? What hotels were friendly delegates staying at? We were scrambling. In the end, though, what stopped the railroad was the voice of a delegate from Burma, who spoke from the floor and asked the U.S. chair person why the process was so undemocratic. Bang, down came the gavel. Meeting adjourned. The U.S. wasn’t going to be accused of hosting an undemocratic WTO ministerial in its home territory of Seattle. It was a close call for opponents of corporate-led globalization.

The Doha ministerial was another story. Held within weeks of 9/11 in the small country of Qatar, the meeting was under tight security. U.S. Marines in civilian clothes, their machine pistols tucked under their sports shirts, patrolled the halls. Dogs and soldiers everywhere. Only a couple hundred NGO participants attended. Even in this moment of broad-based international sympathy for the US, the talks amounted to largely a lot of rhetoric about commitments to developing countries, and an agreement to try to launch a new round.

Cancun in 2003 and Hong Kong in 2005 – again, no agreement. Cancun went so badly that the Mexicans closed the meeting a day ahead of schedule. Now a “mini-ministerial” in the safety of the WTO’s hometown, Geneva. Pascal Lamy turned to the world food crisis as the reason to approve the Doha round and in the end the talks broke down because developing countries feared agreement would in fact worsen their food security, which for many are already at the breaking point.

After 20 years of failure, the blame game is well rehearsed, but the truth of the matter is that global capital overreached. The WTO’s failure leaves a bitter taste in countries racked by food riots and starvation and underdevelopment. There is no turning our back on the real issues of trade and development, which demand thoughtful and equitable multilateral cooperation. Too bad we had to waste all this time stopping a bad idea. And maybe now we can start talking about the kind of international trading system that can build a fair and just world economy.

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New Direction Needed After Doha Round Collapse

Posted July 29, 2008

Today, trade talks at the World Trade Organization in Geneva broke down. It has now been seven years since the Doha Round of negotiations began at the WTO.

Below is a statement from Carin Smaller, head of the Geneva office of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy:

“This deal may have been hanging by a thread, but what snapped the thread was a major division between WTO members on how to achieve development. The U.S. argued that opening markets was the best way to achieve food security and to promote livelihoods. India and China, supported by the majority of developing country members, argued for a strong safeguard mechanism to protect food security and livelihoods in the event of major disruptions to agricultural markets.

This deal did not collapse over small technicalities. It was doomed to fail from the start. There is no political support for what is on the table: not from India or France or Argentina or South Africa or most of the WTO membership. Following the same WTO model is impossible now: governments are no longer willing to sacrifice other concerns strictly for the sake of trade. People are in the streets rioting over food and energy prices. The business world is in a state of shock over the financial crisis. These are the problems that governments have to focus on. And the Doha Round cannot help them.

People want global agreements to solve food insecurity, to get them out of poverty and to avoid the devastating effects of climate change. If trade can help these goals, it should be used. But the deal on the table was likely to make things worse.

Other global institutions are better equipped to solve these new challenges. Multilateralism is more important than ever, and it has to support a diversity of approaches to allow governments to realize full employment and sustainable development. 

The question is no longer whether we need an alternative path to the Doha Round, but rather how to initiate it. It is time for strong political leadership from the South and North to push for a new model of trade.”

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It is now over...

Posted July 29, 2008

So this is it… Another WTO ministerial has just collapsed and the talks are ending in acrimony, with members blaming each other for the failure. Although we do not like what Doha had become, this is a very sad play to be watching. The world is not getting any better out of this. We wish Ministers were more creative, and would have used this opportunity to outline an alternative path for the global community, since Doha does not satisfy anybody anymore.

Instead, here we are, divided between a sense of relief that a bad deal has been avoided, and serious concern that multilateralism is being severely damaged. Strong and fair multilateral trade rules are more essential than ever to help address the serious crises the world is currently facing. But Doha was not providing the right rules.

The mistake was to convene this ministerial in the first place. WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy tried to use the multiple crises (food, climate, finance) to entice governments to agree to a deal that doesn't address these issues. It failed. Now he has to face the consequences.

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