Protector of Pandas, Friend to Farmers

The IATP was born out of the family farm movement in the 1980’s.

“During the previous ten years, the number of family farms in America had gone from six million to two million,” Harkness says. “One of the activists who was trying to find solutions was a guy named Mark Ritchie — an Iowa farm boy who’d also worked on the Nestle boycott — and he and some other people started the IATP to draw attention to the importance of global agricultural trade and how it influences the well-being of farmers in rural communities.”

The IATP has fought against the North American Free Trade Movement and the World Trade Organization, on the premise that both promote non-sustainable, commercial farming, causing environmental damage, negatively affecting public health, and wiping out family farms.

Today, one of the major issues facing the IATP is the way federal payments to farmers favor commodity over diverse, food-based farming. As a result, some 85 percent of land in the Midwest’s “Farm Belt” is devoted to growing soybeans and corn. This, in turn, leads to an economy where whole 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/or corn syrup, are plentiful and cheap.

“Over a 15-year period, from about 1985 to 2000, the cost of fresh produce went up 35 percent, whereas the price of ground beef and Coca-Cola, in real terms went down about an equivalent amount.” Harkness speaks softly, seriously. “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.”

In other words, Harkness is not only concerned about the family farmers — who, he says, make less than a living wage even if they capitulate and grow government-subsidy crops — he’s worried about consumers as well.

According to the IATP’s 2006 report
Food Without Thought, during the period from 1970 to 2000, childhood obesity skyrocketed. Processed food climbed to represent 40 percent of the average American’s grocery bill, while produce claimed less than nine percent. The consumption of high-fructose corn syrup — a cheap, moist sweetener found in soft drinks and most processed foods, which provides no nutrients and very little usable energy, but must be processed entirely by the liver, like a toxin — rose 1,000 percent. There was a concurrent surge in cases of type 2 diabetes. And during the same time period the U.S. consumption of added fats went up 35 percent.

The IATP’s role — one that Harkness has adopted as his own — is to push for policies and originate practices that will correct all of these ills, ranging from the deterioration of America’s farm culture to the spread of inexpensive, unhealthy, commodity-based processed foods.

They’re doing this by lobbying for changes in the Federal price support system of payments to farmers; encouraging regional food buying in urban communities (e.g. setting up farmer’s markets in urban neighborhoods); opposing the messages of Fortune 500 agribusiness, such as Cargill and General Mills (which is one reason the IATP is based in Minnesota); developing language around a “common farmer-public health policy platform” for the next farm bill; and promoting fair trade practices — even going so far as to operate a for-profit company of its own: Peace Coffee.

The agency operates on whatever level is appropriate to the issue at hand, Harkness explains. Locally, they’re working with low-income residents of North Minneapolis, encouraging them to shop at local markets and buy fresh food. Regionally, their top concern right now is the growing enthusiasm for farms that will exclusively produce corn for ethanol. At the national level, most of their energy is devoted to rewriting the farm bill and swaying lawmakers. And internationally, they’re focused on the World Trade Organization and how its policies shape our communities and our lives.

“Look, I took this job because I feel like for most of my life, I’ve been concerned about social justice and, for lack of a better, less overused, word, the sustainability of our planet.” Harkness looks perplexed again. But I understand, finally, that this isn’t disapproval. He’s only pondering.

“I’ve tried to work toward those goals using all sorts of different means, whether it’s talking about conserving pandas or giving people decent, affordable food to eat. When I was first told about the IATP, I’ll admit, it sounded removed from my lofty ideas about human rights. But when I got into it and saw what this organization does — looking at issues that affect just about everyone in this world — I realized that food is a very powerful force.”

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