Jim Harkness never expected to return to Minnesota. A native of South Minneapolis who studied Chinese in high school, he started his career as an activist specializing in Asian birds, then giant pandas. His work took him to China often, and eventually he became a full-time resident of Beijing, working first with the Ford Foundation, then serving as executive director of World Wildlife Fund China.
But in 2005, when he heard the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP)—a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable farming and ecosystems—was searching for a new president, Harkness picked up and moved back home.
“When I was first told about IATP, I’ll admit, it sounded removed from my lofty ideals,” Harkness says. “But when I saw what this organization does, looking at issues that affect everyone in this world, I realized that food is a very powerful force.”
IATP was born out of the farm movement in the 1980s that opposed global trade and supported a traditional model for rural family farms. Today, the organization is still fighting the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, on the premise that both promote nonsustainable, commercial farming that harms both the environment and public health.
Also among the major issues IATP addresses are the federal subsidies that favor commodity crops such as corn, soybeans, and wheat—as well as the corporate farm entities that produce them—over smaller, independently owned operations that produce a diverse range of foods. The result, according to Harkness, is that roughly eighty-five percent of arable land in the Midwest’s “Farm Belt” is devoted to soybeans and corn. This in turn leads to an economy where other foods must be shipped in from around the country and overseas—making them both ecologically damaging and expensive—while processed products, made with soy byproducts and corn syrup, are plentiful and cheap.
“Over a fifteen-year period, from about 1985 to 2000, the cost of fresh produce went up thirty-five percent, whereas the price of ground beef and Coca-Cola, in real terms, went down about an equivalent amount,” Harkness says. “That’s because feedlots and the soft-drink industry suddenly had all this very cheap raw material at their disposal, which they would not have had without massive government intervention. And if you look at the onset of America’s obesity crisis, it coincides almost exactly with these changes in policies.”
According to Food Without Thought, IATP’s 2006 report, childhood obesity skyrocketed between 1970 and 2000—at the same time as spending on processed food climbed to forty percent of the average American’s grocery bill, while produce dropped to claim less than nine percent. Perhaps most alarming: The consumption of high-fructose corn syrup rose one-thousand percent. A cheap, shelf-stable sweetener found in soft drinks and most processed foods, corn syrup provides no nutrients and very little usable energy, but must be processed entirely by the liver, like a toxin. So concurrent with the rise in obesity has been a surge in cases of type 2 diabetes.
Harkness and IATP are waging battles on many different fronts. The key is for the tiny agency to operate on whatever level is appropriate to the issue at hand, explains Harkness. A major initiative is to lobby for changes in the federal price support system of payments to farmers, so most of IATP’s energy is devoted to rewriting the byzantine national farm bill and swaying national lawmakers. (Part of this involves countering messages from large-scale agribusinesses such as Cargill and General Mills, which is one reason IATP is based in Minnesota.) One goal is to develop language around a “common farmer/public health policy platform” for the next farm bill, developing policies that are good for both producers and consumers.
But Harkness and his staff also work locally—in North Minneapolis, for instance—to establish farmer’s markets in urban neighborhoods and encourage low-income residents to buy fresh food. Regionally, their top concern right now is the growing enthusiasm for farms that will produce corn exclusively for ethanol. And Internationally, they’re focused on exposing how the World Trade Organization’s policies shape our communities and our lives. IATP’s promotion of fair trade practices has even led to a for-profit company of its own: Peace Coffee is perhaps its best-known success.
“I took this job because for most of my life, I’ve been concerned with social justice and the sustainability of our planet,” Harkness says. “And I keep working toward those goals using all sorts of different means, whether it’s talking about conserving pandas or giving people decent, affordable food to eat.”