by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

May 26 2016

Those top-secret trade agreements: leaked TTIP documents

A couple of years ago, I wrote a long post attempting to explain the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a trade agreement under negotiation since then with the European Union.  Like all trade agreements, this one is done secretly, making it difficult for interested parties to weigh in.

But Greenpeace Netherlands has now leaked what it says are the texts of 13 chapters of the TTIP.  These include 248 pages of internal documents dating from TTIP talks at some uncertain date.  These include chapters about food and agriculture, as well as many other issues.

The documents include a 25-page “Tactical State of Play” on the negotiations similar to a 20-page public EU report, but with more detail on points of disagreement and consensus.

Greenpeace claims that the documents demonstrate major risks for the climate, environment and consumer safety.  The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative strongly disagrees, and European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malström says the leaked documents only reflect negotiating positions.

I took a look at the leaked Chapter X Agriculture [US: Market Access].  The European Union proposes, for example:

  • [On public health and safety] The Parties recognize that their respective societal choices may differ with respect to public policy decisions affecting agriculture. In this regard, nothing in this Agreement will restrain the Parties from taking measures necessary to achieve legitimate policy objectives such as the protection of public health, safety, environment or public morals, social or consumer protection, or the promotion and protection of cultural diversity that each side deems appropriate.
  • [On sustainability] The Parties recall the prominent role of sustainability in its economic, social and environmental dimensions in agriculture and aim at developing a fruitful cooperation and dialogue on agricultural sustainability issues. To this end, the Parties shall work together to…exchange ideas and share experience in developing sustainable farming practices, particularly with regards to organic farming, and environmentally friendly rural development programs.
  • [On geographical indicators] The Parties shall cooperate in matters related to geographical indications…The Parties reaffirm the importance of origin-linked products and geographical indications for sustainable agriculture and rural development, and in particular for small and medium-sized enterprises.

On international agricultural development, the United States proposes

The Parties shall work to promote international agricultural development and enhanced global food security by: (a) promoting robust global markets for food products and agricultural inputs; (b) seeking to avoid unwarranted trade measures that increase global food prices or exacerbate price volatility, in particular through avoiding the use of export taxes, export prohibitions or export restrictions on agricultural goods; and (c) encouraging and supporting research and education to develop innovative new agricultural products and strategies that address global challenges related to the production of abundant, safe and affordable food, feed, fiber, and energy.

You have to read between the lines to figure out what they are really talking about (GMOs in the case of this last one).

Politico Pro’s analysis suggests that several issues remain unresolved:

  • The link between agriculture and car parts: we take European car parts and they take our agricultural exports.
  • Protection of wine names. The EU does not want us to use European names for our wines; Washington does.
  • The EU’s October proposal to cut back on antibiotic use in livestock is not in these documents.
  • The sanitary and phytosanitary chapter (the one that deals with food safety) finds little agreement on use of animal growth hormones or GMOs.
  • GMOs: The US wants the EU to accept them. The US language says “Each Party shall endeavor to meet applicable timelines for all steps in its approval or authorization processes for products of modern agricultural technology.”

Perhaps in response, the EU has now released its own version of the agriculture chapter, and  the European Commission has released all of its working documents related to the TTIP, including draft proposals on agriculture and other matters.

The European Commission also released a report on the state of the negotiations.  Several points are unsettled.  The EU, for example:

  • Indicated it does not support a US proposal on modern agricultural technologies.
  • Insisted on the importance of animal welfare provisions in trade agreements and the relevance of the matter for SPS [Sanitary and Phytosanitary issues, such as food safety].
  • Stressed the importance of joint efforts to fight AMR [antimicrobial resistance] at all levels in all fora and argued for the inclusion of AMR in the SPS Chapter.

On our part, the U.S. goals for agricultural trade are

  • Eliminate tariffs and quotas
  • Address SPS measures and technical barriers to trade (TBT).

More than two dozen Senators urged U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman to ensure there is “a strong framework” for agriculture in the TTIP, warning that its absence could have a negative impact on Congressional support for any deal.

As long as the negotiations continue in secret, all of this will remain mysterious and out of the reach of the public.  This makes trade negotiations inherently undemocratic, something Greenpeace attempted to reverse in releasing the leaked documents.

May 13 2016

Weekend reading: Miraculous Abundance [Permaculture]

Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer.  Miraculous Abundance: One quarter acre, two French farmers, and enough food to feed the world.  Foreword by Eliot Coleman.  Chelsea Green, 2016.

This book, more about philosophy than a how-to, describes how two inexperienced beginners succeeded in creating a gorgeous, productive, self-sustaining farm on 1000 square meters of land in Normandy—La Ferme du Bec Hellouin.

They did this by using the techniques of permaculture.  This they define as “a box of smart tools that allows the creation of a lifestyle that respects the earth and its inhabitants—a practical method inspired by nature.”  Later, they explain that it is based on an ethic: “Take care of the earth. Take care of the people.  Equitably share resources.”  As I said, philosophy, not how-to.

You have to read the book to figure out what all this means in practice.  It seems to come down to what I thought of as French Intensive methods.  These use raised beds, rich soil, composting, and thoughtful planting of coordinated crops that support each other’s growth and nutritional needs.  Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya—nine seeds—approach works the same way.   The authors drew on the work of John Jeavons, Eliot Coleman, and many other small-scale sustainable farmers from all over the world to develop their version of these methods.

If the color photographs are any indication, the results are magnificent.   The place is so highly productive that it easily supports the two of them.  The mandala garden alone made we want to get on the next plane just to see how it works in controlling weeds.

The moral: you could do this at home.

May 4 2016

Big Ag forces firing of long-time Farm News cartoonist

I love cartoons (witness Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics) and was appalled when I read this tweet:

Here’s the offending cartoon:

In a Facebook post the cartoonist, Rick Friday, explained:

I am no longer the Editorial Cartoonist for Farm News due to the attached cartoon which was published yesterday. Apparently a large company affiliated with one of the corporations mentioned in the cartoon was insulted and cancelled their advertisement with the paper, thus, resulting in the reprimand of my editor and cancellation of It’s Friday cartoons after 21 years of service and over 1090 published cartoons to over 24,000 households per week in 33 counties of Iowa.

I did my research and only submitted the facts in my cartoon.

That’s okay, hopefully my children and my grandchildren will see that this last cartoon published by Farm News out of Fort Dodge, Iowa, will shine light on how fragile our rights to free speech and free press really are in the country.

The Des Moines Register explains further:

The CEOs at the ag giants earned about $52.9 million last year, based on Morningstar data. Monsanto and DuPont, the parent of Johnston-based Pioneer, are large seed and chemical companies, and Deere is a large farm equipment manufacturer.

Profits for the three companies, all with large operations across Iowa, also have declined as farm income has been squeezed. After peaking in 2013, U.S. farm income this year is projected to fall to $183 billion, its lowest level since 2002.

US Uncut adds more details:

Friday received an email from his supervisor at Farm News, informing him that he would be fired, citing he was “instructed” by a superior to not accept another cartoon from Friday. The supervisor told Friday that “in the eyes of some, Big Ag cannot be criticized or poked fun at.”

It also published Friday’s cartoons based on his firing.  Here’s one:

Friday has done other cartoons like this.  It’s not surprising that he has corporate advertisers upset.

How to help? Consider a quick note to Farm News about how badly Americans need a free, independent press to discuss farm issues.

Here’s the publisher’s contact information:

Larry Bushman
lbushman@messengernews.net

(Thanks to Daniel Bowman Simon for keeping me up on such things.)

Addition, May 5: Friday’s view of all this.

Feb 13 2016

Weekend Reading: Fed Up

Dale Finley Slongwhite.  Fed Up: The High Costs of Cheap Food.  University Press of Florida, 2014.

Yes, there’s a movie called Fed Up (in which I make a very brief appearance) but this book covers a quite different topic.  It takes a tough look at the impact of widespread pesticide use on farmworkers in the area around Lake Apopka in Central Florida.  Slongwhite tells the individual stories of these workers through oral histories, thereby putting a human face on callous disregard for people and the environment.

Dec 17 2015

House spending deal: food issues summarized

Thanks to Helena Bottemiller Evich of Politico Pro for doing the homework on food issues covered by the omnibus spending deal just agreed to by the House.  Here’s my quick summary of her summary.

  • GMO labels: the effort to preempt local and state GMO labeling initiatives failed as a result of the efforts of 30 representatives who opposed the measure.
  • Country of origin labels repealed: the meat industry scores a win in the House vote to repeal the measure.
  • Dietary guidelines: I discussed this one in yesterday’s post.  The House wants to block their release on the grounds that they are not sufficiently scientific (translation: the meat industry doesn’t like advice to eat less meat).
  • The Clean Water Act: it survives.
  • GMO salmon: it will have to be labeled.
  • Food safety funding: up more than $132 million to $2.72 billion in discretionary funding. This is a big win for the FDA. It also proposes $1 billion for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, also above the president’s request.
  • Trans fat ban”: delayed until FDA’s formal rules go into effect in June 2018.
  • School lunch flexibility: Riders allow schools to ignore whole grain requirements and block sodium restrictions pending further research.
  • Chinese chicken out of schools: Prohibits purchasing chicken that was processed in China for school meals or other federal nutrition programs.
  • More kitchen equipment: Schools get another $30 million for school equipment grants.
  • Horse slaughter: Banned.

Caveat: this is the House deal only.  The House has to vote on the actual bill, then the Senate.  Then the two bills need to be reconciled and the President needs to sign.  Until then, everything is up for grabs.

Jul 31 2015

Weekend reading: Food, Farms, and Community

Lisa Chase and Vern Grubinger.  Food, Farms, and Community: Exploring Food Systems.  University of New Hampshire Press, 2014.

Here’s my blurb for this excellent and most useful book:

If you haven’t a clue as to what’s meant by food systems, read Food, Farms, and Community right now.  The book covers the territory from farm to fork, clarifying the complexities and focusing on what’s really important: what to do to create food and farming systems that promote the health of people and the planet.

Enjoy the summer weekend!

Jul 3 2015

Weekend reading: Joel Bourne’s The End of Plenty

While celebrating the Fourth of July, why not take time for some thoughtful reading?

Joel K. Bourne, Jr.  The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World.  WW Norton, 2015.

Here’s my blurb for this one:

The End of Plenty takes a thoroughly researched and exceptionally thoughtful and balanced look at the consequences of industrial farming.  Joel Bourne’s courageous conclusion: to feed the world’s burgeoning population, agriculture must change and population increase must stop.  His book should convince every reader of the compelling need to address world food problems through more skillful and sustainable agronomy, but also through education, especially of women, and universal family planning.

Jul 1 2015

Small farms in Cuba: a brief report on my visit

As noted in an earlier post, I was offline from from June 13-20 on a visit to Cuba with a Food First group visiting small organic farms, rural and urban.

This was my third trip to Cuba.  I came with other groups in 1990 and 1992 at the beginning of what Cubans refer to as the “Special Period,” the economic disaster caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of its support for the 1959 Castro revolution, and the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba.

The embargo also required countries that trade with the U.S. to stop trading with Cuba.  For tourists like me, the lingering effects of the embargo are the travel restrictions, the failure of U.S. cell phones to work, and the scarce and slow Internet access.  Hence: Offline.

But change is imminent.  I heard many Cubans mention December 17, the day of President Obama’s 2014 announcement of resumption of relations with Cuba, as if it ought to be celebrated as a national holiday.

Our group traveled by charter flight from Miami.  My first surprise: We were not alone: The Miami airport devotes two entire concourses exclusively to Cuban charter flights.  As many as 20 flights every day are packed with people who have families in Cuba, business people, and tourists of one kind or another.

2015-06-13 06.05.39Our group was interested in Cuban agriculture and food systems.  This post deals with rural agricultural production.  In subsequent posts, I’ll talk about urban farming and what the Cuban food scene looks like.

The USDA provides useful background information and statistics on Cuban agriculture.

The 2015 report has this interesting tidbit: US agricultural exports to Cuba rose from $139.2 million in 1956-58 to $365.3 million in 2012-14.

This, however, does not break the embargo; it is classified as sales, not trade.  The Cubans buy agricultural products from us, mostly frozen chicken for people, and soybeans and soybean meal for animal feed.

We did not see much agriculture on this trip.  There is plenty of land, but gas, transportation, and tractors are extremely limited.  The highway between Havana and Pinar del Rio is well maintained but we saw few cars on it.  Horse-drawn carts, yes; cars and trucks, no.  And lots of land not in production.

2015-06-17 10.13.09

The reasons for this go beyond the embargo.  We heard repeatedly that Cubans don’t like doing agricultural labor: the population is highly educated, is 80% urban, the climate is hot and humid, and Cuban culture does not value that kind of work.

Much of Cuban food is imported.  How much?  Estimates range from 35% to 85% depending on whether whoever is doing the estimating is for or against the Cuban revolution.

An official of the agriculture ministry told us that Cuba is self-sufficient or nearly so in eggs, mangos, sugar, and tobacco.  I took this photo of mangos grown on the remarkable farm in Pinar del Rio established as a model for sustainability by Fernando Funes-Monzote.

2015-06-14 13.08.52

At present, food is grown in Cuba on large farms owned by the state or held by family-owned cooperatives of one kind or another, or on smaller farms that are owned by private individuals or families.  Only 70% or so of arable land is in production.  The state still has a million hectares to distribute, but has a hard time getting anyone to farm it.

Most production is organic, but not by choice.  The embargo makes agricultural inputs unavailable or prohibitively expensive. See, for example, Modern Farmer’s photo-essay on Cuban farming.  Rice and potatoes, however, are not organically grown, and neither is most tobacco.   We heard from farmers in the exceptionally beautiful Viñales region that tobacco is beginning to be grown organically.

2015-06-16 08.00.38

They are proud of their tobacco.  It is used for high-quality cigars and is a major cash crop.

The agricultural situation in Cuba, like much else about the country, is full of contradictions.

Tomorrow: urban farming.

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