A voice for sustainability, born in Southwest

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy turns 25

WHITTIER — From analyzing international trade agreements to helping launch a mini farmers market program in Minneapolis.

From advocating for access to safe, clean drinking water in rural areas the world over to shepherding through the Minnesota Legislature a law banning bisphenol A, a hormone-disrupting chemical, in baby products.

From last year’s United Nations climate talks in Cancun, Mexico, to a small South Minneapolis café where it hosts monthly book club meetings, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) works locally and internationally to promote fair trade, sustainability and a healthy and safe food system. A global actor with a local impact, the nonprofit organization this year marks its 25th anniversary.

About 35 staff members work in the Whittier neighborhood headquarters of IATP, which also operates small satellite offices in Geneva, Switzerland, and Washington, D.C. Its annual budget is about $4 million, funded primarily by foundations.

Those Southwest residents not already familiar with IATP might at least recognize its Peace Coffee brand from local grocery store shelves. A for-profit business started by IATP in 1996, it was a way for the organization to “walk the talk” on fair trade — a project very much in line with the vision of IATP founder Mark Ritchie, now Minnesota’s Secretary of State.

“I think that IATP grew out of an awareness that, to accomplish the goal of the organization — of protecting family farmers and rural communities right here, and protecting consumers and Minnesotans right here — we had to be globally active, alongside of being active in Washington, in St. Paul and in our own communities,” Ritchie said.

Roots in farming crisis

IATP grew out of, and in reaction to, the farm crisis of the 1970s and ’80s, when falling agricultural prices and the mounting debt of family farmers wreaked havoc in rural communities across the Midwest. Farms were foreclosed on, small towns shrank and rural economies crumbled.

In the mid-1980s, during Gov. Rudy Perpich’s second administration, Ritchie was working as a trade policy analyst for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. From that perch, he saw how state and federal policies designed to support family farmers and rural communities could be so easily undermined by global trade agreements.

What Ritchie describes as his “ah-ha moment” was all about connecting the local to the global.

“If you wanted to protect your food cooperatives, your farmers’ markets, your family farmers, your rural communities, you had to work at the local, the state, the federal and at the international level simultaneously, and do it with a very informed, broad discussion and dialogue,” he said.

When it was founded in 1986, IATP’s first headquarters was on Blaisdell Avenue, in the basement of Ritchie’s Kingfield neighborhood home.

A broader focus

IATP President Jim Harkness, who joined the organization shortly after Ritchie left to run for office, said the scope of IATP’s work had broadened since the early years, when so much of its focus was on the international trade agreements, like the North American Free Trade Agreement, and groups, like the World Trade Organization, then being formed.

“Nowadays we really are talking about food systems,” Harkness said. “So, we’re taking into account all of the different things that are affected by the production, processing, transport, distribution, sale and even disposal of food.”

That systemic view led IATP into policy areas that, at first, may not seem directly tied to its mission, like the debate over global climate change. But IATP is there — analyzing how agricultural practices and food-distribution systems contribute to climate change, for example, or raising awareness of how changing weather patterns could impact farmers across the globe.

IATP’s involvement in winning a statewide ban on bisphenol A-containing baby products grew out of its work supporting a “green economy” in Minnesota and elsewhere, Harkness explained.

“We work very closely with business, with people at the University of Minnesota and others to promote green chemistry, which is really (about) how do we have a better, bio-based economy that’s going to create good jobs in Minnesota, and also create sippy cups and silverware and plastic materials that are healthy for us?” he said.

Local action on local food

In 2007, IATP staff led a successful push to rewrite city policy on farmers’ markets, making it easier and less expensive to start up small, neighborhood markets with just a few vendors. Now, more than two dozen mini farmers markets sell produce in neighborhoods that often lack easy access to fresh produce.

Robert Skafte, who runs the Stevens Square mini market just a few blocks from IATP headquarters, said the weekly market “thrilled” neighborhood residents and paid-off for small farmers, too.

“Now vendors are calling me, and it used to be an issue where [I] couldn’t find them,” Skafte said.

JoAnne Berkenkamp directs IATP’s Local Foods Program and also serves on the city’s Homegrown Minneapolis local foods taskforce, and said, “Much of our work is pretty heady, and we find that it’s really important for us to root that policy and analytical work in realities on the ground, and to really be testing in local contexts, in real places with real people, the ideas that we’re working with up at that 100,000-foot level.”

Homegrown Minneapolis Coordinator June Mathiowetz said IATP did the “actual, concrete work” of setting up the mini markets. Later this spring, IATP will issue its report on another pioneering Minneapolis program that made it possible for federal food support recipients to use their assistance funds at local farmer’s markets, a program developed and administered with IATP’s collaboration.

Lindy Bannister, general manager of Wedge Community Co-op, said she grew to know IATP staff during their regular stops at her store for lunch. Last year, Bannister accompanied Harkness on a trip to Beijing, China, where they met with locals involved in that country’s co-op movement.

In Bannister’s view, all of IATP’s work — whether in Beijing, Geneva or Minneapolis — strengthens local food systems here at home.

Said Bannister: “The more people we have talking about … local and healthier food, the more people we touch.”

Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected]

More info
For more on the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Institute, visit iatp.org or follow the institute on Twitter @IATP.