Late July is a quiet time for much of the Northern hemisphere: even the United States takes a week or two off work at some point to enjoy the summer. It is a busy time, however, for international trade negotiators—this year more than most. The General Council of the WTO (its primary decision-making body) concluded its last meeting before the summer recess yesterday without signing the trade facilitation agreement (TFA). Director-General Azevêdo was not pleased.
WTO members committed to the TFA at the Bali ministerial last year, promising to adopt it before the end of this month. No one knows what comes now: those who most wanted the agreement passed say the multilateral trading system itself is in jeopardy. U.S. trade officials have been busy making dire pronouncements on social media and at press conferences about the loss of credibility of the multilateral trading system, while a joint statement signed by 26 countries, including Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Nigeria and Viet Nam, warned that if the WTO members failed to adopt the TFA, the whole “Bali Package” (three issues on which governments agreed to make commitments at the WTO Ministerial in December 2013) would unravel. India replied, with some support from other countries, that they needed to see progress on all issues, especially on agriculture talks, before any single agreement can become law.
In 1986, corn was selling at $1.80 a bushel. Today, in the summer of 2014, corn is selling for under $4.00 a bushel. If we adjust for inflation, the $1.80 corn of 1986 would be worth $3.90 a bushel today.
In 1986, the response from farmers to the $1.80 bushel of corn was as close to a populist uprising that this country has ever experienced. A prairie fire of protest spread across the country. Tractorcades, penny auctions, lenders forced to renegotiate farm loans and a whole lot of hell raising in farm country.
In 2014, $3.00 corn has failed to provoke much of a reaction. Why? What has changed?
There were 6 million farmers in the U.S. in 1986. Today there are around 2.2 million farmers, with the bulk of our commodity crop production coming from some 150,000 of them. Between 1970 and 1990, nearly 7 million farmers were forced off the land because of low prices, high interest rates and crushing farm debt. This was the culmination of the “Get big or get out” policies of the Nixon/Reagan era.
The wholesale elimination of millions of family farms sparked the rural rebellion of the late 70s and 80s. Farm families witnessed the end to a way of life that many had inherited from their parents and grandparents. Organizations like the American Agriculture Movement, Farmers Legal Action Group, Farm Aid, the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy came into being in response to this crisis. Looking back, farmers and their allies put up a good fight, but in the end, the powerful forces of agribusiness, banks and the pusillanimous politicians of both parties set our nation on a course where farmers were replaced by machines, petroleum, chemicals and monoculture cropping. For those who survived, farm incomes improved and farms got much bigger.
Food democracy must start from the bottom-up, at the level of villages, regions, cities, and municipalities. – UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food Olivier De Schutter in March 2014
Olivier De Schutter recently finished his widely acclaimed term as the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. During his 6-year tenure, he called for a "radically and democratically-redesigned" food system. In his closing address, he highlighted the significant changes he has witnessed: the small-scale food producers having a more visible voice in decision-making; the growing number of local initiatives that create a ‘transition from below’ for a more sustainable food system; and ‘agroecology’ becoming a part of mainstream discussions about solutions to current modes of food production and consumption. De Schutter stated, “Much work remains to be done, of course. But there are promising signs that things are moving in the right direction.”
Innovation is the key to solving so many of the problems facing us: widespread malnutrition, environmental damage, and a warming and increasingly unpredictable climate. Our need for innovation is an uncontroversial statement; something we’ve heard a million times over, from politicians, agronomists, environmentalists, and agricultural corporations alike.
They keep using this word, but we do not think innovation means what they think it means. Or at least, it shouldn’t.
This past weekend, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported that Germany would reject the Canadian-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) as it contains investment provisions that allow foreign investors to sue governments over policies that undermine corporate profits. That reportgot the attention of those tracking the U.S.-EU trade negotiations. The Mail article was based on German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung’s coverage of the issue.
Saturday’s announcement created a flurry of calls to the German Economic Ministry. Was the most powerful EU country going to block the negotiations in their endgame? If so, it would be an unprecedented event in Europe with massive implications on how corporate investment rights are handled in free trade treaties around the globe, including with the United States. The Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported that [translated] “while Germany in principle would be willing to initial the treaty [CETA] in September, the chapter on investment protection is seen to be ‘problematic’ and currently not acceptable.”
Trade policy negotiations, such as those for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), are conducted largely as if they were private business deals. Despite many public interest issues that are subject to “least trade-restrictive” criteria in the TTIP and other so-called Free Trade Agreements, access to draft negotiating texts is restricted to negotiators and their security-cleared advisors, overwhelmingly corporate lobbyists. About 85 percent of 566 advisors to the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) come from various industry sectors.
Trade negotiations texts are exempted from public disclosure otherwise required under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act by presidential Executive Order 13526, which can be rescinded by President Barack Obama. U.S. NGOs, including IATP, have repeatedly urged the USTR to end trade policy transparency exemptions. IATP was among 250 non-governmental organizations to sign a May 19 letter to the EC’s director of trade demanding the EC release for public comment draft negotiating texts and related documents.
An interesting window of opportunity for legislators dialogue between the USA and the European Union opened last week in Strasbourg, during the plenary session of the European Parliament, when Sharon Anglin Treat, from the House of Representatives of the US State of Maine, met Members of Parliament (MEPs) from various Committees and political groups in order to exchange views on the impact of on-going negotiations on a free trade agreement between the United States and Europe (TTIP) with regard to food, agriculture, environment and related issues.
Rep. Treat co-chairs the Citizen Trade Policy Commission, which advises the Maine Legislature and Governor on trade policy, and also is a member of the Intergovernmental Policy Advisory Committee (IGPAC) in the office of US Trade Representative Froman.
Last month, President Obama issued a memorandum to create a national strategy to promote pollinator health. The strategy includes creating a pollinator health task force and taking steps to increase and improve pollinator habitat. The fact that pollinator decline is starting to be addressed at the Federal level signals increasing recognition of the severity of this problem. Nearly one out of every three mouthfuls of food we eat relies on a pollinator, and without the bees, butterflies, moths, flies, bats and other pollinators, the world food supply will become increasingly unstable.
The two largest threats to pollinators are habitat loss and pesticide use. Of particular concern are neonicotinoids, an increasingly popular kind of insecticide that control a wide variety of insects. The most common way that neonicotinoids are applied is as a seed coating. This means that the pesticide is on the seed before it’s even planted, and it travels through the plant’s vascular system as it grows. This transports the pesticide throughout all parts of the plant, including leaves, stems, flowers, fruit, pollen and nectar.
Over 94 percent of the corn and half of the soy planted in the United States is pretreated with neonicotinoids. As a result, many farmers are not even aware that they are using neonicotinoids. Awareness of the problem is growing however, especially in parts of Europe, where they have been banned. Non-neonicotinoid treated seeds are available in the U.S. too, but they need to be specifically sought out and can be hard to find.
This week, organizations and individuals around the country are coming together to tell Walgreen’s—the largest drug retailing company in the United States—to eliminate products containing toxic chemicals from their shelves. Led by the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition (of which IATP is a part), the July 17 “Instagram Day of Action” is asking the company to join the Mind the Store campaign and, by doing so, agree to create an action plan to reduce and eliminate the Hazardous 100+ toxic chemicals from their supply chain. Customers will share their messages with Walgreen’s via social media to create a less toxic world.
Fantastic, right? But what do the shelves of Walgreen’s have to do with food and agriculture? Answer: Eliminating toxic chemicals from consumer products, such as phthalates in children’s toys, reduces the amount of toxic chemicals that enter our agricultural system and, thus, the food that ends up on our dinner plates.
Despite the fact that organic food sales in the United States have increased from $11 billion on 2004 to an estimated $27 billion in 2013, consumers—particularly low income communities—are still exposed to a variety of toxic chemicals through their food. While the direct use of agricultural chemicals and food additives pose known threats to human health, certain toxins, such as those on the Hazardous 100+ list, find their way to our plate in indirect ways.
Teaching children about food and where it comes from is an important part of many childcare programs, but many childcare facilities want to go a step further and build a Farm to Childcare program that connects local farmers with young children by providing fresh, healthy foods in childcare meals.
In response, IATP has just published a ready-to-use Farm to Childcare Curriculum developed in partnership with childcare provider company New Horizon Academy (NHA); and a complementary Farm to Childcare: Highlights and Lessons Learned Report that tells the story of using that curriculum to start a comprehensive Farm to Childcare program currently operating at 62 NHA childcare centers throughout Minnesota.
The Farm to Childcare Curriculum Package contains information on designing a Farm to Childcare menu and implementation schedule, recommendations on how to highlight local farmers to make the connection real for children, detailed examples of family engagement strategies and extensive experiential learning activity suggestions to incorporate Farm to Childcare themes into Circle Time, Math and Science, Sensory and Dramatic Play, Arts and conversations at mealtime. It also includes resource recommendations for further ideas.
Trade agreements are negotiated in a top down process: negotiators cut secret deals and then push for approval. These trade deals set rules on investment by corporations and banks, and lowering standards and regulations to the “least trade restrictive” possible. Local decision-makers are then left to figure out exactly what these rules mean for their state or community programs to build local economies, protect the environment or promote public health, or face challenges in special trade courts. This problem, and the fact that trade talks are held in secret until the completed deal is dropped on lawmakers’ desks, is a huge point of tension in the public debate on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), as well as the continuing debate on fast track authority, which would restrict Congressional input to an up or down vote.
The Maine Citizen Trade Policy Commission (CTPC) takes a proactive approach to this dilemma. The CTPC, made up of state representatives and senators, along with representatives of important state agencies and civil society, holds public hearings and weighs in with the U.S. Trade Representative on issues of concern to local citizens. Under Maine law, the commission is mandated to “conduct an assessment of the impacts of international trade agreements on Maine’s state laws, municipal laws, working conditions and business environment.”