Think Forward blog

Sewage Sludge and Food

Posted October 14, 2008

Several million dry tons of sewage sludge, also known as biosolids, are used as fertilizer on agricultural lands and given away or sold for use by homeowners and landscape contractors annually in the United States. Currently, there are no labeling requirements for food produced on land treated with sewage sludge. And it's difficult for gardeners to even know if they are using a sludge-based fertilizer product.

Today, IATP released our latest Smart Guide for consumers: Smart Guide on Sludge Use in Food Production. The guide reviews the various disease-causing microbes, synthetic chemicals and heavy metals that have been found in sewage sludge, and explains how these contaminants can persist in the soil and enter the food system through food crops and food animals.

You can listen to an interview with the guide's author, Marie Kulick, or download the guide, a separate chart on the potential health effects of some of the more persistent synthetic chemicals in sludge, and a list of sludge-based fertilizer products marketed for home use.

"Given the high contaminant content of sludge, it makes no sense to allow the use of sludge on agricultural land or home gardens," sais Kulick in our press release. "This practice poses an unnecessary health risk, particularly when there are safer alternatives available."

» Read the full post

The Food Crisis and the World Bank

Posted October 10, 2008

As development and finance ministers from around the world gather in Washington, D.C. this weekend for the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund meetings, the initial focus will be on the free fall plaguing global financial markets. Combined with recent sharp rises in energy and food costs, poor countries are facing a triple hit right now.

In preparation for the World Bank/IMF meetings, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Heinrich Boll Foundation hosted a discussion yesterday titled: The Global Food Crisis: Time for a Fresh Look at Sustainable Agriculture Alternatives. You can view the full discussion on C-Span's Web site (requires Realplayer).

Presentations came from Sandra Poloski of the Carnegie Endowment, IATP's Steve Suppan, Daniel De La Torre Ugarte from the Agricultural Policy Anaylsis Center, Davo Vodouhe of Pesticide Action Network in Benin, Arze Glipo-Carasco of the Integrated Rural Development Foundation of the Philippines and Steven Schonberger of the World Bank.

IATP's Steve Suppan discussed his involvement with the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, which recently issued recommendations to expand small-scale, low-input farming in developing countries and has been endorsed by 57 countries. Dr. Ugarte reported findings from an upcoming paper co-authored by IATP's Sophia Murphy on how developing countries can best improve food production and rural livelihoods.

World Bank President and former Goldman Sachs director Robert Zoellick would do well to consider the panel's ideas as a guide for addressing the food crisis.

» Read the full post

Agriculture Lessons from Wall Street Bailout

Posted October 9, 2008

A few weeks ago, IATP's Mark Muller wrote about a few lessons Wall Street investors might learn from the local foods movement. There are a lot of similarities to the debacle on Wall Street and what we have seen in farm country: in both cases government has largely deregulated the market and the ensuing volatility has caused enormous pain for people caught in the middle.

In his latest must-read column, Dr. Daryll Ray of the Agriculture Policy Analysis Center takes this comparison a step further, looking back at governmental responses to the Great Depression, when government intervention helped stabilize both financial markets and the farm economy. Dr. Ray then traces the 50-year effort to roll back government regulation in both sectors, culminating in the 1996 Freedom to Farm Bill and the 1999 partial repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act. The result has once again been dramatic and harmful volatility in both sectors.

As Congress looks at further regulation to stabilize Wall Street's markets and our credit system, will they also look for solutions to address the enormous harm caused by the volatility in our agriculture economy?

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The Fertilizer Mafia?

Posted October 7, 2008

Costs for farmers around the world have gone through the roof
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particularly for fertilizer. As the New York Times reported in April, rising fertilizer prices are limiting the production of farmers in developing countries trying to respond to the global food crisis. Is this just a case of tight supplies and growing demand, or is something else going on?

A class action lawsuit filed last month in Minneapolis alleges something else is going on: price-fixing. The lawsuit offers a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the global fertilizer trade. A small Minnesota-based company, Minn-Chem Inc., charges that seven companies in the United States, Canada, Russia and Belarus conspired to fix global prices for the fertilizer potash.

Potash includes mineral and chemical salts that contain potassium, and is widely used around the world as a fertilizer to increase crop yields. Over half of the world’s global capacity is located in just two regions: Canada and the former Soviet Union (Russia and Belarus).

Three Canadian companies (PCS, Mosaic and Agrium) and three former Soviet Union producers (Uralkali, Belaruskali and Silvinit) account for approximately 71 percent of potash market exports, according to the lawsuit. The Canadian companies are equal shareholders in Canpotex, which unifies sales, marketing and distribution for the three companies. Companies in the former Soviet Union have consolidated sales and marketing of their potash into a single entity called BPC.

The complaint alleges a global conspiracy by this exclusive potash club of seven companies to fix, raise and stabilize prices; allocate market shares and limit production; and share sensitive, non-public information about prices, capacity and demand. It alleges that the companies coordinated restrictions in potash production in 2006, 2007 and 2008, which resulted in higher prices. North American potash prices rose 60 percent in 2004-2005 and essentially doubled in 2007 and 2008, according to the complaint.

And as prices rose, so did the profits of potash companies. PCS's second quarter 2008 profits increased by 220 percent over the previous year's second quarter. In October, Mosaic (partially owned by Cargill)
that its quarterly net earnings had quadrupled (according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Mosaic's recent earnings helped double the net worth of Cargill heirs Whitney MacMillan and Cargill MacMillan Jr. in the last year to $7 billion each). In August, Agrium announced that its second quarter earnings had more than doubled from the previous year. Net profits for Uralkali for the first half of 2008 more than tripled from the previous year.

The fertilizer industry, represented through the Fertilizer Institute, argues that increasing prices from all types of fertilizers is simply supply and demand at work. And certainly demand has increased as acres have expanded for highly fertilized crops like corn, soybeans and wheat to meet growing demand for food, animal feed and fuel. 

But the claims of tight supplies seem to run counter to a UN Food and Agriculture report earlier this year that concluded, in the case of potash, “Global potash supplies are expected to keep well ahead of total demand with the surplus increasing from 5.7 to 6.7 million tonnes at an annual growth rate of 3% over the outlook period. During this period the surplus will fluctuate little at about 18% of demand.”

An October 2 story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune by Chris Serres went further: "In the eyes of many farmers and agriculture experts, fertilizer prices have seemed to defy the normal laws of economics." Serres reported that while prices have skyrocketed, Mosaic announced it has an over-supply of phosphate and potash and is cutting production. Bob Zelanka, of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association, told the Star Tribune, "It certainly does have the feel like they're controlling the supply to drive up the price."

Recent price increases all along the food chain are drawing the attention of regulators. According to the Wall Street Journal's John Wilke, the U.S. Justice Department confirmed it has opened investigations into price fixing in the tomato, egg and citrus-fruit industries, and "federal agencies are pursuing criminal or civil inquiries in markets including fertilizer, cheese and milk."

We may never know the real role of market collusion in the current food crisis, but we should sure try to find out.

» Read the full post

No Gold Medal for Food Safety

Posted October 6, 2008

In May, IATP published “U.S.-China Food Safety Agreement: Terms and Enforcement Capacity.” My paper summarized the views of U.S. Congressional investigators who doubted that the Chinese General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) could effectively implement and enforce the hundreds of pages of new food safety rules that followed the first round of melamine contamination of pet food last year, which sickened or killed an estimated 39,000 pets in the U.S. The profit and economic growth imperative of both industry and Chinese Party officials could veto inconvenient regulation when they deemed it necessary. Unhappily, the investigators were right. According to a September 29 article (sub required) in Food Chemical News, former FDA administrator William Hubbard said of the FDA-AQSIQ agreement analyzed in my paper, it “is not worth the paper that it’s written on.”

On September 25, the World Health Organization announced that more that 54,000 infants and young children had been treated for urinary problems and possible kidney stones that occurred as a result of consuming infant formula or dairy products laced with melamine. More than 14,000 have been hospitalized and at least three children have died from melamine poisoning. Chinese companies had added melamine to boost the protein content of milk that had been watered down. Melamine has many uses in the production of plastics, glues and other industrial products, but no uses of it are approved for food. 

Following the resignation of the head of China’s food safety agency, China Central Television reported that the government had received complaints about illness caused by Sanlu Group’s infant formula as early as December 2007. According to an excellent September 27 article in The New York Times, journalists who tried to report on the contamination incidents were censored by the government and the Communist Party, whose top priority was to hold a “harmonious” Olympic Games to enhance the prestige of the government and spur economic growth. Now China’s gold medal for holding “harmonious” Games has turned to dross.

Several Asian countries have banned the import of all Chinese products containing powdered milk. United States and European Union food safety officials are scrambling to determine whether their imported foods contain Chinese powdered milk, particularly in products consumed in Chinese immigrant communities. But as food safety inspectors sought to prevent more damage to human health, U.S. and Chinese trade officials met on September 18 to discuss relations between the two countries - a meeting U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez described as “a very robust session with very robust outcomes.” The trade officials had nothing to say about melamine, the mention of which would have disturbed their “harmonious” relationship. And China Central Television reported that all dairy products still on the shelves are safe.

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Canadian Groups Call For NAFTA Renegotiation

Posted October 3, 2008

Earlier this week, ten Canadian civil society groups called on political candidates running in Canada's October 14 election to "stop ducking Obama's NAFTA challenge." Specifically, the groups asked for candidates to respond to U.S. Senator Barack Obama's pledge to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) if elected President.

The Canadian groups zeroed in on a number of key provisions of NAFTA that need renegotiation, including the energy chapter's "proportionality clause," which compels Canada to export oil and natural gas at a set rate to the U.S., even if it results in domestic shortages. It is NAFTA's proportionality clause that is partially driving the controversial and energy-intensive development of oil tar sands in Alberta. IATP's newsletter, Tar Sands Oil Review, is monitoring the issue.

The Canadian groups also called for the renegotiation of NAFTA's investment chapter (also known as Chapter 11), which grants corporations the right to sue governments in all three countries (through unelected and secret trade tribunals) to challenge regulations they disagree with. There have been over 50 such Chapter 11 cases filed under NAFTA.

Pressure appears to be building in all three countries to renegotiate NAFTA. In March, civil society networks in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada issued a similar call for the renegotiation of NAFTA at a Washington, D.C. conference co-organized by IATP. The March statement covered ten specific areas of NAFTA to be renegotiated. IATP contributed to the agriculture section, which calls for the protection of policies that support family farmers, sustainable agriculture and inventory management to stabilize prices. At the conference, legislators from all three countries also announced the formation of a tri-national "Task Force on Renegotiating NAFTA."

In June, the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development and Employment (TRADE) Act was introduced in Congress, which requires an honest, full-cost assessment of all existing trade agreements, including NAFTA, using a series of economic, environmental and social indicators. If the trade deal failed to adequately meet these indicators, it could be reopened for negotiation. The TRADE Act has had strong initial support and will likely be re-introduced next year.

A recent U.S. poll reported that 56 percent of Americans want to renegotiate NAFTA. Nearly 15 years after it came into effect, the fight over NAFTA appears to be far from over.

» Read the full post

A Chance to Do the Right Thing

Posted October 2, 2008

Last night I attended the Women’s Environmental Institute’s (WEI) Mother Earth Banquet and Fundraiser, which honored three mothers of the environmental justice movement: Devra Lee Davis, Winona LaDuke and Annie Young. The Minneapolis-based WEI works with IATP through the public health coalition Healthy Legacy to reduce the use of toxic chemicals in everyday products.

Karen Clark (DFL-Minneapolis), co-founder of WEI, began the evening by showing a map of Minneapolis with dots on the neighborhoods found to be the most contaminated with toxic chemicals. From there, she added layers with dots for arsenic, dots for kids with asthma, and finally, dots where both adults and children have been hospitalized for asthma. By the end, the Phillips neighborhood (comprised primarily of people of color and low-income households, and includes a federal superfund site for arsenic) was barely visible, but the importance of the issue couldn't have been clearer.

The environmental justice movement, which emerged in conjunction with the civil rights movement, refocused environmentalism to emphasize the issue of equity as it relates to low-income and communities of color. As Ann Bancroft, the evening’s emcee, explained, “We think of a polar bear and a penguin when we think about climate change. They are symbols. But there are huge amounts of indigenous folks who everyday live in these regions [the Arctic], whose languages are being lost because of the loss of their culture.”

As Annie Young pointed out, environmental racism includes "putting stuff where people don't want it." But it can also mean an absence of things people do want, such as access to healthy foods. Many low-income communities around the country and in Minnesota are trying new strategies to address these so-called food deserts. Annie Young is currently in the process of developing a food co-op for North Minneapolis, another food desert. And IATP's mini farmers market project is working to bring healthy local food to underserved communities in Minneapolis.

For Dr. Davis, author of The Secret History of the War on Cancer and When Smoke Ran Like Water, environmental justice means that people have a right to know what’s in their communities (and consequently, their bodies), so we can get beyond simply diagnosing and treating cancer to truly preventing it. In her book, Davis examines how scientific research about the environmental causes of cancer has been suppressed and dismissed by the very corporations creating the toxics. In case you missed her, Dr. Davis will be speaking tonight on the University of Minnesota campus in the Cowles Auditorium, Hubert Humphrey Center, at 7:00 pm.

Following Dr. Davis, Winona LaDuke offered a poignant critique of the United States’ current path, and the urgency of the situation regarding climate change and the need to build a green economy. “The politicians who are saying 2050 aren’t going to be here. The responsibility is with us. We are the people who are here at this moment, who have the chance to put the cap on climate change. . .What a great privilege it is to be the people born at this time. We have a chance to do the right thing.”

I was struck by this—the idea that at this moment in time, we are the ones with the choice to alter our course, and that it's a privilege to do so. What a great thing to keep in mind as we move forward and—as the environmental justice movement advocates—work together from the bottom up.

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The WTO and the Food Crisis

Posted September 30, 2008

Last week, IATP convened a high-level panel at the WTO Public Forum titled: “The Food Price Explosion: What Can the WTO Do?” The idea was to further a debate on the WTO's role in the food crisis, with some world leaders identifying the completion of the Doha Round to further liberalize global trade as part of the solution, while others, starting with civil society representatives, arguing that the model promoted by the Doha Round is partially responsible for the food crisis.

We put together a panel that represented these different perspectives, trying to base the discussion on facts and figures so as to identify possible bridges between various approaches. Hoping to reconcile such "schizophrenic" (in the words of one of the speakers) approaches in two hours would have been overly ambitious. What came clearly out of the discussion were two main points:

  • The Doha mandate is far too limited to address the food price crisis comprehensively. Some call it inadequate, while some call it insufficient, depending on their perspective; and
  • Despite the very serious crisis we are facing--75 million more food insecure people in the world in 2007, according to the FAO--the dichotomy between free-trade advocates and those who think the market needs to be regulated still exists. The panel put forward the need for the two camps to engage in a dialogue based on facts rather than on ideology, and to use this crisis as an "opportunity" to build a healthy and sustainable food system.

Below are some quotes from the panel. You can listen to the entire session (a little less than 2 hours) by clicking here.

Arze Glipo, convener of the Asia Pacific Network for Food Sovereignty, said:

“Long before food prices actually exploded, a long running agrarian crisis fueled by the development strategy of trade liberalization had already deprived millions of poor people access to their food entitlements (…). And on the other hand, the power of global corporations expanded enormously under globalization. Transnational agribusiness corporations such as Cargill or ADM have even made a killing out of the food crisis.”

“Agriculture needs to return to its function as provider of life rather than a source of huge profits for transnational corporations.”

Brad McDonald, representative for the International Monetary Fund in Geneva, stressed:

“Speculation can in principle increase or reduce futures prices and spot prices from the levels justified by fundamentals. Whether that possibility has been a reality is an empirical question that must be examined carefully using actual data of course. Speculative positions and commodity prices have indeed moved together; they are positively correlated. The interesting question then becomes whether there is a causal link between the two and, if so, in which direction. . .Statistical analysis, at least so far, finds little evidence that speculation has been behind the increase in food prices”

Olivier de Schutter, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, highlighted:

“The problem is not so much high prices per se. Rather, the problem is the unpreparedness of States who have been addicted to cheap food and who have under-invested in agriculture as a result.”

“I will be preparing a report on the impact of the WTO on the right to food and I will very much put forward the need to anticipate the risk that because of their trade commitments, States might be obliged to sacrifice their obligations towards the right to food and this may not be allowed to happen; they must have the policy space necessary for them to protect the rights of their populations.”

Ambassador Ujal Singh Bhatia, Permanent Representative for India to the WTO, added:

“As things stand, the [Doha] Round cannot be expected to deliver a major outcome for expanding food production in developing countries or for addressing the food crisis in any substantial manner. Conversely, those who expect the Doha Round to worsen the global food situation perhaps give it too much credit.”

“The challenge of food security requires distributional interventions as much as production incentives. In developing countries, governments have to retain the power to maintain price stability in the interest of producers as well as consumers.”

Wally Smith, vice president, Dairy Farmers of Canada, said:

“I can assure you that Canadian supply managed farmers stand behind India and the developing countries in their effort to protect through SSM their farmers and their production vehicle.”

“Regulated systems like supply management provide better solutions and help prevent significant price instability. Our unique Canadian supply management experience is one example of how a country can effectively keep the lid on inflation for consumers, because according to official estimates, Canadian consumers paid 3 percent more this year for dairy products in a context of rising prices. However in contrast, consumers in France, Europe and the U.S. saw double digit increases for both eggs and dairy products in their countries.” 

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Questions for Candidates on a Fair Farm and Food System

Posted September 29, 2008

Backbone_2As election season hits high gear, what should candidates be talking about regarding the future of our food and farm system? The Backbone Campaign is trying to elevate the political discourse by asking various experts to pose questions to all candidates.

You can go here to listen to IATP President Jim Harkness  on the challenges facing our food and farming system heading into 2009.

Jim's commentary is drawn from an article IATP contributed to an essay collection from leading progressive think tanks, led by the Institute for Policy Studies, on important first steps for the next administration, to be released following the election. Last week, IATP contributed ideas on how the U.S. could rejoin the global community in the collaborative report, New Progressive Voices.

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A 21st Century New Deal?

Posted September 26, 2008

I’ve probably heard and read dozens of times over the past two weeks that this is the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. Our stock market and confidence in the banking system are allegedly on the brink of a 1929-style collapse.

But what is fascinating and somewhat alarming is how our collective perception of the economy has shifted in the past 75 years. In the early 20th century, agriculture was the backbone of the country. When commodity prices went south, people suffered. And the effects went well beyond the farm gate because farm income provided the capital for businesses in rural communities all over the country. The lack of jobs and farm income resulted in poverty and hunger.

Now, instead of an economy built on the labor of farmers and manufacturing, the backbone is perceived to be Wall Street. Debt and financial instruments are the new wheat and corn. The rising costs of housing, food and gasoline have been a concern for a few years, but it took the collapse of financial institutions to create a national panic. The proposed solutions to this crisis by Congress and the Bush administration are much different than the response in the 1930s.

Seventy-five years ago, the New Deal focused on getting people back to work and getting farmers a fair price for their commodities. Nowadays, the solutions largely revolve around assuring adequate assets in financial markets, and bolstering domestic and global confidence in our financial institutions. I’m glad that a poor farm economy, like the downturn in the late 1990s and early 2000s, no longer devastates the country, but perhaps we’ve drifted too far from a Main Street focus to a Wall Street focus.

I have no idea if using $700 billion to provide Wall Street this assurance is the best way of avoiding a financial crisis. But it is striking how much the current focus is on a top-down approach of fixing global markets rather than the previous grassroots approach of getting adequate income back into workers’ pockets. With such an emphasis on financial indicators such as stock prices, currency valuations and interest rates rather than focusing on the well-being of workers and families, the 21st century New Deal may be missing the forest for the trees.

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