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September 10th, 2014

I Read EPA’s “Clean Power” Plan So You Don’t Have To

By Ron Zucker

pollution tradingOn June 2, the EPA announced its new “Clean Power Plan.” The plan came after a long wait. Back in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA had the power to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. After Congress tried and failed to pass a weak Cap-and-Trade approach, eyes turned to the EPA to see if they could do better.

Unfortunately, the answer is that they didn’t do better. The proposed regulations don’t go nearly far enough and rely on bad or nonexistent solutions to the problem. This plan makes insufficient progress to address an existential crisis.

We’ve just released a new fact sheet that brings together the shortcomings of the plan. Read the full article…

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September 9th, 2014

Detroit’s New Regional Water Authority: A Prelude to Privatization

By Mitch Jones

Water_Manhole_CoverEarlier today, Detroit and three of its suburbs announced the creation of a new, independent regional water authority. The deal creating the authority is part of the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings in Detroit. And while it’s being sold as a panacea to the woes of Detroit’s water system, it’s anything but. In fact, it’s another false solution that will likely leave Detroiters worse off than they are already — with no way to hold decision makers accountable.

The city and the suburbs released the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that forms the basis of the agreement. A reading of the agreement reveals that it will likely lead to the privatization of the water system.

The creation of the regional authority, the Great Lakes Water Authority, corporatizes the system by putting appointed, unelected officials fully in charge of the big decisions that determine the cost and quality of service. The agreement treats water provision as a business instead of a public service. Corporatization itself is the first step to privatization. The new authority can privatize the management and operation of the water and sewer system without real city input or public approval.

Currently, the Detroit city council must approve any privatization deal because it has oversight of water contracts worth more than $2 million. With this new agreement, the city council will lose that power.

In fact, an independent authority will not give ballot-box accountability to county residents, either; it will just cost city residents their ability to hold the system’s decision makers accountable.

The MOU says that the city will hire Veolia Water North America to review the water and sewer systems and to make recommendations “in evaluating operating models.” Veolia is the largest private operator of municipal water systems in the United States. We can expect that Veolia will likely recommend that the authority privatize the operation and management of the systems. And, we can expect the new authority to pursue those recommendations.

According to the MOU, the authority will be established if Detroit and one of the three suburbs formally approve it. If the other two counties refuse to officially join, the governor would appoint representatives for those counties to the new authority’s six-member board of directors. Because of this and because the MOU allows the governor to appoint one board member anyway, the governor could potentially appoint half the members of the new authority’s board.

Should Detroit approve the deal now, while under the rule of Emergency Manager Orr, but decide to withdraw once the city is returned to democratic governance, the MOU states that the governor would then be able to appoint the city’s representation to the authority’s board and the city would lose the “sweetener” funding for local infrastructure it is being given to buy into the deal.

We know what happens when cities privatize water systems: rates tend to go up, service tends to go down and jobs tend to be cut. That’s why the powers that be try to distance themselves from these decisions and insulate themselves from the potential fall out by establishing these undemocratic boards to do the dirty work. There’s a word for this: cowardice.

But the city council still has the opportunity to reject this deal — and it should. The elected representatives of the people of Detroit should stand up against this sham agreement. It’s possible Emergency Manager Orr will overrule them, but it is the one opportunity they have to put on record that the people of Detroit deserve better. It may even give pause to the unelected forces behind the deal.

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September 5th, 2014

Where the Jobs Are: U.S. Manufacturing, China, and Free Trade

TPP_SecretBy Mitch Jones

I’ve highlighted before the threat to our food and water posed by the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) currently being negotiated by the U.S. and eleven other Pacific Rim countries. But a few recent events have shifted my attention to the other big story about which we don’t speak as much: manufacturing jobs.

Earlier this year, I traveled to New York to give a talk about the TPP and food safety. Traveling north on the train it struck me that the tracks passed through many neighborhoods filled with boarded up houses. I noticed that all of those neighborhoods had one thing in common: they all surrounded shuttered factories. Then this summer, while visiting family, I drove past the abandoned Motorola factory outside Harvard, Illinois. When I returned to work I saw a new “working paper” from economists working with the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) entitled “Import Competition and the Great U.S. Employment Sag of the 2000s” (pay walled). NBER is a nonprofit research organization that represents mainstream economic thinking. Many economists associated with NBER have gone on to work as advisors to both Democratic and Republican presidents.

The paper confirms what progressive economists have long been saying; so-called “free trade” has a massive negative effect on U.S. manufacturing employment. The authors of the paper estimate that between 1999 and 2011 the U.S. had a net job loss of 2.0 million to 2.4 million jobs because of imports from China. A quick, back of the envelope calculation shows that, were these jobs still in the U.S., it would have knocked a full percentage point off of our unemployment rate. And these aren’t just any jobs—they are more likely to be better-paying jobs with better benefits. Read the full article…

FDA: Playing Chicken With Our Public Health

The USDA is under pressure — due to trade negotiations — to approve Chinese chicken imports.

By Scott Edwards

Public outcry against irresponsible use of antibiotics in the livestock industry continues to mount as the evidence about its impact on antibiotic resistance accumulates. In response, Perdue recently announced that it was reducing the use of antibiotics in its poultry operations. Perdue’s announcement comes on the heels of several recent developments in the ongoing overuse of these drugs by poultry producers, including a 2012 Food and Drug Administration ban on injecting cephalosporins into chicken eggs and the Agency’s recent announcement of its voluntary strategy to curtail the industry’s use of growth-enhancing antimicrobials.

Not only are the regulatory authorities finally making some moves to counter the abuse, but public sentiment against the use of antibiotics is also reaching a fever pitch. A Consumer Reports food label survey just issued shows that 78 percent of consumers think that reducing antibiotic use in food is “important” or “very important.”

The fact is, people are starting to demand better food choices while pointing out the dire human consequences of irresponsible industry actions, and regulators are being forced to respond; industry’s marketing people are also seeing the writing on the wall. It’s no coincidence that Perdue’s announcement comes just as the company is making a move to become the dominant player in the organic chicken market.

A Perdue spokesperson stated that the company’s voluntary reduction in the use of antibiotics shows that the industry doesn’t need to be regulated to change its ways. If only that were true. One of the big problems with industry’s use of antibiotics is that the FDA does a poor job of tracking the use of these drugs in U.S. meat producers. There are very weak reporting requirements and industry’s admissions of antibiotic use are purposefully murky and undefined. Even Perdue’s official statement leaves it unclear how antibiotics will continue to be used to “treat and control illness in sick flocks.”

Chicken Farm, PoultryBut where Perdue’s “we don’t really need to be regulated” argument really falls apart is when you look at many of the other problems associated with its industrialized meat production system. For example, Perdue’s hundreds of Delmarva factory farms continue to be a significant source of water pollution to a dying Chesapeake Bay, where agriculture remains the largest source of nitrogen and phosphorus discharges. And, while nutrient-caused dead zones continue their annual summer haunt of the Bay, Perdue has spent decades refusing to take any responsibility for the mountains of manure from their own chickens that pile up on the Eastern Shore each spring. The Bay, and the many people who rely on it, simply cannot wait until the company decides that it’s marketable to clean up after itself.

Likewise, with the antibiotic issue, voluntary simply doesn’t cut it; antibiotic abuse by industry is a current crisis and our public health and safety cannot afford to wait until there’s an industry-wide decision to do the right thing. So while we should be throwing Perdue a chicken bone for its marketing decision to reduce antibiotic use, the most important part of Perdue’s announcement is that it shows what the industry has been claiming for years – that it can’t produce meat without the abuse of antibiotics – is false. It’s past time for the FDA to do what we all know is possible, and that is to force the meat industry to eliminate its use of harmful antibiotics though protective, non-voluntary regulation.

 

 

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September 3rd, 2014

Extension: Now Advocating on Behalf of Industry?

By Tim Schwab Farm

As we’ve detailed in recent blogs, this summer marks the 100-year anniversary of Congress’s implementation of “cooperative extension,” tasked with the mission of “…diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture and home economics…”

During World War II the extension system successfully lead 15 million families to plant victory gardens, which in 1943 produced an almost unbelievable 40 percent of our nation’s fresh vegetables. Extension offices located in every county also acted as crucial vehicles for connecting farmers to new research from our burgeoning, public land-grant-university system, an arrangement that benefited farmers and consumers for decades. Read the full article…

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September 2nd, 2014

How “Free Trade” Might Harm Detroit, Again

Water_Protest_VolunteersBy Mitch Jones

While once a central component of the economic activity of the United States, Detroit – like other American cities reliant on manufacturing – has fallen on hard times. To be clear, this isn’t an accident of misfortune. Detroit was targeted by both the “free trade” and anti-labor agenda that took over American politics in the 1970s. As a result, the city lost thousands of jobs and its economy suffered. The current crisis in Detroit involving water shut-offs is a symptom of this agenda.

The state-appointed emergency manager for Detroit opened up bids for privatizing the sewer and water department. Recently, the city hired private water company Veolia Water to advise the city on “cost savings” within the department. Headquartered in Paris, Veolia Environnement operates as Veolia Water North America in the United States and is the second largest water company in the country, serving about 10.5 million people in 32 states. In addition to advising the city on cost savings within the department, Veolia is also one of the companies that have expressed interest in a privatized Detroit water system.

We know that privatized water systems are boon for the companies running them and trouble for residents. Under privatization deals rates tend to go up, service tends to go down, and jobs tend to be cut. That, by the way, is what “cost savings” means. The people of Detroit are already struggling to pay their ever-increasing water bills in an economy that shows little signs of recovering.

Now, as the push for privatization plays out behind closed doors, another proposed trade deal could make it hard to get out of any private contract. Earlier this year the United States started negotiating a trade deal with the European Union called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or TTIP. The deal could give private water companies a powerful arsenal to use against local communities. TTIP could undermine communities’ ability to halt hostile privatization efforts, hinder attempts to reclaim water systems from EU corporations and make it harder to hold private water companies accountable.

The deal could also allow EU water companies to challenge municipal decisions about owning and operating water utilities at secret international tribunals, part of a system known as Investor-State Dispute Resolution. An EU company like Veolia could even challenge an unfavorable decision by a public domestic court in this private international venue. The tribunal would have the power to second-guess local rules and public safeguards on behalf of EU companies. If Detroit decides to try to terminate any private contract—once the city reestablished complete control of its system from the emergency manager—an EU company holding that contract could also seek monetary damages. This would make it much more difficult for a city like Detroit to exit bad privatization deals or remunicipalize their water.

Having had it’s economy systematically destroyed by previous free-trade agreements, Detroit now stands poised to suffer again from the ridiculous attempt to establish trade tribunals that will be able to overrule the decisions of local citizens.

The way to stop this is to prevent TTIP from ever becoming law. Write to your Congress member and ask them to oppose “fast tracking” the TTIP and other trade deals.

 

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Citizens Won: Greece’s Water Will Remain in Public Hands

By David Sánchez

Referendum about water privatization in Thessaloniki, Greece. Credit: Save Greek Water

Referendum about water privatization in Thessaloniki, Greece.
Credit: Save Greek Water

There is an ongoing struggle in southern Europe, where water privatization is promoted as a way out of the economic crisis. But this summer, a turnaround victory was achieved in Greece: the Council of State ruled against the privatization of Greek public water companies. Citizens have shown, again, that privatization can be defeated through a combination of grassroots mobilization, legal actions and international solidarity.

The story goes back some years ago. Under conditions imposed by the Troika (which includes the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission and the European Central Bank) to reduce Greece’s debt, public water companies in Athens and Thessaloniki were about to be privatized by the government, among other painful and socially unfair measures.

The mobilization against this measure was massive, and great campaigns were launched in Athens, with a great success in media, and Thessaloniki, where a popular referendum showed an overwhelming opposition to water privatization. A solidarity effort was coordinated by the European Water Movement (Food & Water Europe is an active member). Over 130 civil society organisations and trade unions teamed up with 50 members of the European Parliament to send a letter to the bidders of the public water company in Thessaloniki urging them to drop their bid. Those companies included French multinational Suez Environnement and Israeli group Mekorot. The situation in Greece was central in the campaign for the European Citizen’s Initiative that collected nearly 1.9 million signatures to support the human right to water and to stop liberalization in the water sector.

This victory in Greece sends a clear signal to the European Commission and to the transnational water companies that were trying to make profit out of Greek crisis. The myth that people cannot resist against the Troika’s demands has collapsed. And as our colleagues from Save Greek Water say: “we can all, without exceptions, feel proud of this major victory.”

While we definitely celebrate this new major step to stop water privatization in Europe, we are aware that we cannot be naïve. Public water management is still under threat in Greece and the rest of Europe as long as the European Union and the U.S. negotiate a new free trade agreement (known as TTIP or TAFTA), as long as the Troika pushes for water privatization in many other countries, and as long as the European Commission goes on with their liberalization agenda. These threats will require renewed mobilization for the recognition of water as a human right and a common good.

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August 29th, 2014

Extension’s Role, and Retreat, in Improving Farmers’ Bottom Lines

By Tim Schwab

IMG_3898Alabama’s Farm Analysis Program represents the best of what our nation’s “extension” program can be — utilizing the technical expertise of land-grant universities to improve farmer livelihoods. Extension, which this summer celebrates its centennial and is the subject of a series of blogs from Food & Water Watch, uses programs like this to connect farmers with university experts, in this case trained economists who conduct careful financial analyses of farm income.

Importantly, universities benefit as much from the program as farmers. From PhD students working on a graduate research to economics professors publishing peer-reviewed articles, academics have used the valuable data produced from the Farm Analysis Program to further their research and propose economic policy changes to help farmers.

This is especially the case for data about poultry production, where little meaningful, independent, financial data related to on-farm income is available. As Auburn University Professor Robert Taylor has noted, Alabama’s Farm Analysis Program “maintains the only set of consistent records on the actual economics of contract poultry production.”

Using this data, Taylor in 2002 highlighted the gross inequalities that exist in the poultry industry, concluding: “Farm business records show that contract producers who once had acceptable income from their poultry operations now put a few hundred thousand dollars of equity, and borrow several hundred thousand more to hire themselves at minimum wage with no benefits and no real rate of return on their equity. Yet integrators [large chicken processing companies] continue to earn 10-25% rates of return on equity.”

Ten years on, the problem is much worse. Most money generated from poultry production—including that from the 100 million chickens produced each year in Alabama—ends up in the coffers of one of a handful of corporate chicken companies while farmers exist on razor-thin margins, one or two bad flocks away from losing the farm.

Business journalist Chris Leonard’s new book “The Meat Racket” brilliantly describes the abuse and economic exploitation that poultry growers suffer under the thumb of companies like Tyson. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice’s antitrust enforcement office offered a cursory acknowledgement of anti-competitive practices in the poultry industry with a public workshop at Alabama A&M in 2010, which has spurred talk of possible action from Congress and the USDA.

With the public spotlight finally shining on the rampant abuses in the poultry industry, it’s an awfully odd time for Alabama to jettison the Farm Analysis Program, as it did last May. An extension officer there told me that the state decided to shift resources to broader educational efforts. Farmers can still take classes on how to use QuickBooks and learn the basics of agricultural accounting, he told me, but extension now has greater time and flexibility to perform a range of functions that serve the public interest. But consider the public value that’s been lost with the demise of the “only set of consistent records on the actual economics of contract poultry production.”

The kind of economic concentration that exists in the chicken industry also exists elsewhere in the food system, with a handful of companies selling most of the seeds and agrochemicals, slaughtering most of the pigs and cattle, processing most food products, and selling food to consumers at grocery stores. This system greatly enriches the handful of companies at the top, but hurts farmers, workers, communities and consumers.

So, where is extension on this issue? Largely absent. This, again, raises questions about how relevant this institution is today, and to what extent extension is fulfilling  the mission Congress laid out for it in 1914. All too often, extension avoids the most pressing economic and social issues facing farmers.

Stay tuned for Food & Water Watch’s continuing analysis of the hundred-year anniversary of cooperative extension.

Laugh? Cry? UK Plans to Let Big Biz Police Itself

By Eve Mitchell

Meat_AisleThe UK Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has a plan: Businesses should have a bigger say in how regulations are enforced.

Admitting a “significant shift” in its press release, Defra “hailed a change that puts business in charge of driving reform.” The goal is “lightening needless burdens without weakening essential controls.” This made me squirt tea out my nose.

To share a few recent examples of the way “needless burdens” are holding back food business:

1) Horsemeat is still present in European beef supplies, and the UK government is reportedly stalling the release of a now 16-month-old investigation report. Publication is said to be “blocked amid government concerns that the public would be frightened by the idea that criminals were still able to interfere with their food.” Too right. All the promises about the “integrity” of our food system from supermarkets, and all the reassurance from the government that meat is safe because it is traceable, yet we still don’t know where the horse came from, who did it, or what will be done about it. Hard to see the needless burdens there.

2) The fallout from the Guardian expose on the scandalous things going on in the UK poultry industry grows ever murkier. Having been told by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) that it inspected the factories concerned and gave them ratings of “good” and “generally satisfactory” (makes your mouth water, no?), we have since learned that in fact the FSA now admits that “dirty birds from the floor being thrown back into food production [was] a serious breach.” The “needless burden” of regulation means that no penalties will be issued as the company says it’s fixed the problem. As of today the FSA website still says it “will publish the completed audits in due course.”

3) Then there’s the salmon labelled “wild Scottish” in supermarkets that turns out to be intensively farmed Norwegian fish. “Foreign-owned corporations are exploiting the world-renowned and prized image of Scottish salmon – an iconic image of Scotland – to obtain a price premium.” International industrial fish giant Marine Harvest insists the industry is “heavily” or “highly regulated” (in Scotland in 2012 here, and in Ireland in 2013 here). Yet oddly, despite the huge furore over horsemeat labelled as beef, this burden apparently does not mean we can always tell what’s being sold on supermarket shelves.

4) Meanwhile, the ongoing European salmonella outbreak shows us how dangerous failure is in a complex international food supply chain. It reminded me, naturally enough, that on July 28 jury selection started in the U.S. federal trial of three former Peanut Corporation of America bosses over the vast salmonella food recall in 2008-9. The three face a 76-count indictment that they “created fake certificates showing their products were uncontaminated when laboratory results showed otherwise.” One defendant admitted to faking documents. No mere infringement, we learn the plant was “not fit to produce products for human consumption.” For readers unfamiliar with the case, 714 people in 46 states were infected and nine people died in the outbreak. For Americans this is also contamination on an iconic level – contaminated peanut butter gets right to the heart of things, like school lunchboxes, and deliberate adulteration of food is exactly the kind of thing that regulation is supposed to prevent. This failure of proper enforcement, and how far the impacts can travel, is also exactly the kind of thing we need to worry about as the US EU trade negotiations continue.

There are other signs of strain in our food supply, too. At the end of July an antibiotic banned since 1995 as an increased cancer risk turned up in animal feed supplied by a Dutch company to farms in several other EU countries. Since in all likelihood this feed has already been used, it may be necessary to cull as many as 12,700 cattle and 50,000 pigs to clear the drug from the food system. Amid all of this, UK meat inspectors have gone on strike because the FSA refused to give them a 1 percent cost of living pay rise. If these are the problems we know about, I for one am worried about what we don’t yet know, and who’s looking out for us if the inspectors are this angry.

As citizens we’ve had to get used to having serious questions to our government answered by emails that sign off “Regards, Customer Contact Unit, Defra”, but inviting industry to regulate itself in such circumstances is surely taking this business-friendly thing a bit too far.

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August 28th, 2014

Is Cornell the Go-To University for Industry Science?

By Tim Schwab

GMO_CanolaCornell University announced last week that it is embarking on a multi-million dollar campaign to “depolarize the charged debate” around GMOs. Can you guess who’s behind this effort? The biotech industry and its supporters.

The website for this project, the Cornell Alliance for Science, is pretty sparse, but it does note its pro-GMO partners, including the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), which is funded by Monsanto, CropLife and Bayer.

This use of surrogates is par for the course with the biotech industry. Sometimes called the soft lobby, corporations routinely engage neutral-appearing scientists and impartial-sounding front groups to help advance their political and economic agendas. Food & Water Watch detailed the enormous amount of industry research coming out of our public land-grant universities in our 2012 report, Public Research, Private Gain.

Cornell is no stranger to this science-for-sale approach. Earlier this year, Cornell economist William Lesser took money from a biotech front group to produce a questionable analysis showing that GMO labeling will be very costly for consumers. While he noted that the study reflected his personal opinions, not those of Cornell, GMO supporters began publicizing the findings of “the Cornell study” in their campaign to defeat state-labeling initiatives around the country. Independent studies, meanwhile, show that GMO labeling will not increase costs significantly—and perhaps not at all.

Cornell’s newest foray into the GMO debate, the “Alliance for Science,” will add to the confusion and distortion in the public discourse around GMOs. Rather than trying to promote a civil, honest, impartial dialogue about GMOs—as you would expect from a university like Cornell—the school has chosen to partner with some of the biotechnology industry’s most prominent supporters and defenders. Read the full article…

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