Weekend open thread: Food and farm policy edition

Share anything that’s on your mind this weekend in the comments below.

Yesterday the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Justice jointly hosted a workshop in Ankeny devoted to concentration in agriculture, antitrust issues and market practices. After some controversy over the speakers scheduled initially, more farmers and producers were able to speak during the workshop. Lynda Waddington covered a panel including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The Des Moines Register covered a session concerning Monsanto’s dominance in the biotech seed industry:

Monsanto has generated controversy because of its leading role in the biotech revolution in corn, soybean and cotton seeds since the mid-1990s. About 90 percent of the corn and soybean fields in the Midwest now are planted with seeds genetically altered to resist herbicides and pests.

“Biotech seeds have given farmers better yields and improved their lives,” said farmer Pam Johnson of Floyd County.

Monsanto, Pioneer and other seed companies license their traits under the auspices of a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing life forms to be patented.

Iowa State University professor emeritus Neil Harl said that Supreme Court decision radically changed the seed business from a collaborative, collegial enterprise among land grant colleges, farmers and companies.

“Before 1980, seed germplasm was considered something in the public domain,” said Harl. “Seed was developed in the field and everybody shared. Now seeds are developed in the laboratory and are patented and licensed.”

Holder said the high court decision 30 years ago wouldn’t block antitrust action, if it was deemed necessary.

“The antitrust authority is there,” Holder said. “The question is what the patent holders are doing with their patents. If they are using it to preserve monopolies, that is unfair behavior.”

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey noted that farmers are spending twice as much on seed as they did a decade ago, but also are getting better yields.

“There is tension about the cost of inputs,” Northey said. “But we don’t want to lose the innovation.”

The food blog Cooking Up a Story published this short backgrounder on “Hybrids and the Emergence of Seed Monopolies.”

The night before the DOJ/USDA workshop, Iowa CCI, Food and Water Watch, the National Family Farms Coalition and Food Democracy Now organized a town-hall meeting to raise awareness of excessive levels of concentration in agriculture. Lynda Waddington was there for Iowa Independent.

Democratic candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture Francis Thicke has long been concerned about the loss of competition in agricultural markets. He attended the workshop in Ankeny and praised the DOJ and USDA for investigating antitrust issues related to agriculture:

“Antitrust enforcement by the federal government has been ignored for so long that it will take Teddy Roosevelt-style trust busting to bring competitive markets back to agriculture,” said Thicke, who plans to participate in the first of a series of five workshops planned by the two federal departments this Friday in Ankeny. […]

“The effects of excessive market power by a few firms has been studied for years,” said Thicke. “It has been shown that if four or fewer firms control 40% or more of a market, then it no longer functions as a competitive market.” He pointed out that, as of 2007, four firms controlled 85% of the beef packing market, four firms controlled 66% of the pork packing market, four firms controlled 59% of the broiler market, and four firms controlled 55% of the turkey market.

“Clearly we are beyond the point of open competition in our agricultural markets,” Thicke asserted. “When there are so few large firms in a market, controlling firms begin to act in concert whether or not they are directly communicating pricing with each other.”

Speaking of food policy, I heard some good news this week. The Iowa Center on Health Disparities at the University of Northern Iowa has received major grants for two important projects:

The focus of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation grant is to launch an Iowa Food Policy Council, a diverse statewide cooperative to develop and make research, program and policy recommendations for a food system to support healthier Iowans, communities, economies and environments. Over the next year, the Iowa Food Policy Council will conduct a comprehensive statewide assessment of food systems, food access and health indicators.

The focus of the Leopold Center grant is to convene key food security and public health stakeholders from across Iowa who will examine the disparities in food access and health among Iowans. The Food Access and Health Working Group will address programs and policies that increase access to fresh, nutritious and affordable local food for all Iowans, including vulnerable children and their families.

More details on the grants are after the jump. I was hoping Governor Culver would revive the Food Policy Council, but I’m glad another way was found to get this project going.

March 11 press release from UNI:

UNI ICHD receives grants to address food systems, access and health issues

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Projects addressing critical food-system issues are underway at the Iowa Center on Health Disparities (ICHD) at the University of Northern Iowa. The ICHD projects will focus on food system issues that increase access to health-promoting foods, especially to children, improve public health and build a more sustainable and durable food system in Iowa.

The projects are funded by a one-year $137,600 grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, Mich., and a two-year competitive grant totaling $57,900 from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University in Ames.

“The destiny of Iowa is greatly dependent on how we nourish ourselves. How Iowa feeds its people, especially children, determines the health, economic, ecological and social capacity to support future generations,” said Michele Devlin, UNI professor of health promotion and education and executive director of the ICHD.

“The health of Iowans depends to a significant extent on a food system that makes healthful food the easiest choices. Increasing access to fresh, locally grown foods for all Iowans builds food security, decreases rates of diet-related chronic diseases, especially among children, and boosts local farm economies.”

The focus of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation grant is to launch an Iowa Food Policy Council, a diverse statewide cooperative to develop and make research, program and policy recommendations for a food system to support healthier Iowans, communities, economies and environments. Over the next year, the Iowa Food Policy Council will conduct a comprehensive statewide assessment of food systems, food access and health indicators.

The focus of the Leopold Center grant is to convene key food security and public health stakeholders from across Iowa who will examine the disparities in food access and health among Iowans. The Food Access and Health Working Group will address programs and policies that increase access to fresh, nutritious and affordable local food for all Iowans, including vulnerable children and their families. The Food Access and Health Working Group will be integrated in Value Chains Partnerships, an Iowa-based network for food and agriculture working groups coordinated by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Devlin said these projects will strengthen connections between state, regional and community partners and lend key recommendations for research, program and policy opportunities that cultivate a food system that supports healthy Iowans, families, farms and communities.

Established in 1930, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation supports children, families and communities as they strengthen and create conditions that propel vulnerable children to achieve success as individuals and as contributors to the larger community and society. Grants are concentrated in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, and southern Africa.

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture is a research and education center with statewide programs to develop sustainable agricultural practices that are both profitable and conserve natural resources. It was established under the Groundwater Protection Act of 1987 to conduct research into the negative impacts of agricultural practices; assist in developing alternative practices; and to work with Iowa State University Extension to inform the public of Leopold Center findings.

ICHD provides statewide leadership in applied research, training, education, and advocacy on health disparity issues that affect minorities, immigrants, and medically underserved populations in Iowa. For more information, visit www.iowahealthdisparities.org.

For more information about food systems and health projects, contact Devlin at (319) 273-7965 or michele.devlin@uni.edu.

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