This piece was originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus on September 27, 2016.
The consolidation of corporate power in agriculture has been in the news a lot lately, first with the proposed ChemChina-Syngenta and Dow-DuPont mergers, and now with Bayer’s proposal to purchase seed giant Monsanto. National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson testified in Congress last week that the proposed mergers would enable just three corporations to control 80 percent of the U.S. seed supply (and 70 percent of the global pesticide market). The result is that farmers have fewer and fewer choices about the kinds of seeds they want to plant. The concentration of processing and distribution also limits options and further squeezes farmers at a time when prices are tumbling around the globe.
This expansion of corporate control is also happening in three international treaties that establish the global rights of various stakeholders to seeds, germplasm, and plant varieties. Each of these treaties strikes a certain balance among those interests. And recently, like the agribusiness mergers, the balance has been tilting away from the interests of smaller-scale farmers and diversified agriculture. Unsurprisingly, corporations interested in accessing seeds and other genetic resources are pushing hard on all fronts.
The 2016 election is bizarre, to say the least. While the vast majority of reporting has focused on the horserace and he said she said aspects of the campaigns, the policy proposals put forward by the candidates will have profound and lasting impacts on the citizens they seek to govern. As a recent article in The Atlantic notes, “Once in office, presidents almost always try to carry out their pre-election agendas. When they’re unable to keep those promises, it’s usually because of congressional opposition—not because they’ve discarded campaign rhetoric to pursue other goals.”
With an increasingly globalized food system, trade and agricultural policies have become integral to combating climate change, providing economic security, and ensuring public health. These policies affect our jobs, the food we eat, and the land we live on. The trade and agricultural agenda set by the United States will affect billions of people around the globe. As the presidential debate season begins on Monday, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy will be watching closely to see if and how the candidates address the following questions:
This piece originally published by Farming Matters on September 20, 2016 and republished under the Creative Commons license.
Agro-chemical and fossil fuel intensive agricultural food systems not only destroy the environment but also ignore both the health implications (of the crops/food produced), and the socio-economic implications (for the people engaged in producing that food). Agroecological approaches, in contrast, see food production as one, albeit crucial, component in the larger web of life. They draw on science, but are built on the firm foundations of traditional knowledge; and they seek to enhance ecological integrity while attempting to address food sovereignty concerns. While industrial farming operations are dependent on outside (and often fossil fuel-based) inputs like herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics and genetically modified crops, local food and farming systems minimise off-farm inputs by rotating crops, integrating livestock production, and following agroecological practices. For those who see ecological approaches as necessary for achieving the food, water, health, poverty and environmental targets of the post 2015 agenda, agroecology with its emphasis on local, shared knowledge is not only central to maintaining ecosystem integrity, and revitalising rural economies but also to realising the food sovereignty of those involved in food production and consumption.
Regardless of their operation, do all farmers benefit when they sell their production to traders and processors who export crop- and livestock-derived products? According to a recent interview with Ambassador Darci Vetter, the chief U.S. agricultural trade negotiator, the answer is unequivocally yes. Even now, when prices paid to farmers and ranchers by those traders and processors are well below the cost of producing those crops and livestock, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)? Consider the case of dairy farmers.
IATP contends that the dairy import provisions of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) will do nothing to stem the global raw milk price collapse that is driving U.S. dairy farmers out of business. Those low prices provide very cheap raw materials to such mega-dairy processors as Kraft Foods, Dean Foods and Land O’Lakes, which is owned by the mega-cooperative, the Dairy Farmers of America, but the benefits to farmers are vanishingly small.
The proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the U.S. and the European Union has been negotiated in secret – preventing the public from knowing what exactly is on the negotiating table. In May, TTIP text was leaked by Greenpeace Netherlands. The leaked text provides a snapshot of the status of the talks. Review of the leaked TTIP text—U.S. and EU proposals along with an EU “Tactical State of Play” document— provides important insights into the direction of the trade talks, and raises alarm bells for advocates of fair and sustainable food and farming systems. This is part three in a five part series.
Though the main critique of TTIP has been its sweeping impacts on rule making and standard setting in the two regions, further agricultural tariff liberalization will have a major impact, in particular in the E.U. The leaks offer a first look at which agricultural goods will be on the line. While average tariffs on goods traded between the U.S. and EU are quite low, those figures obscure substantial differences on key products, some of which currently protect vulnerable farming sectors that are already suffering from low prices and unstable markets. In a memo describing tariff reduction offers dated November 20, 2015, the EU notes the intention under TTIP to eliminate tariffs on 97 percent of goods. While exactly how this will play out will only become clear during the final “endgame” of the negotiations, the memo describes substantial, and in many cases, abrupt changes in tariffs on farm goods. As of November, the EU was offering to lower more tariffs than the U.S., but in the latest round of negotiations in April, the U.S. reaffirmed its goal for total tariff elimination. The EU still opposes this position in the interest of its most sensitive agriculture products.
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) has the potential to transform agricultural trade between the United States and the European Union. TTIP could potentially lower tariffs and non-tariff barriers on a range of agricultural goods. While the impact of this on U.S. and EU food and farm systems has been heavily debated, there has been much less discussion of its possible impacts on developing countries. Could TTIP make it more difficult for developing countries to export, particularly goods which many communities have come to heavily rely on for their livelihoods?
TTIP is at the forefront of the “new era” of trade deals in that it seeks to move beyond simple reduction in tariffs towards regulatory harmonization on issues such as labor and environmental standards. In an agricultural context, tariff barriers and regulatory harmonization in areas where the U.S. and the EU differ, such as pesticide use, have garnered the most attention in the negotiations. While many states are implementing innovative pesticide regulations, in general, U.S. standards are lower than those in the EU. However, the push for regulatory convergence within TTIP—advocated by lobby groups such as CropLife America—would push standards to the lowest common denominator, while reducing individual U.S. states’ ability to regulate pesticides, as well as future efforts to regulate pesticide use within the EU.
Over the past year, the Star Tribune, the largest paper in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, has published almost all its articles on the outbreak of highly pathogenic H5N2 in its business section.
The placement is telling and reminds us that the paper views the virus, which has killed 50 million poultry across 21 states, as a matter for food companies and investors. It seems the ecologies and epidemiologies in which we are all embedded are to be treated as mere subsets of commodity economics.
An update last week, published—where else? —in the business section, repeated unsupported declarations about the origins of the outbreak. The newspaper claims the virus originated in Asia; migratory waterfowl brought it here and spread it; and farmer error is to blame for the outbreak. Anything but the poultry sector itself.
A long standing claim by the U.S. government and agribusiness lobby is that U.S. regulations on genetically engineered (GE) crops are science-based while European regulations are not. For example, an April 8 letter from the American Soybean Association to the U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack, states that “approval of these events [three GE soy crops] is now needed for the EU Commission to have any semblance of a working biotech approval system.” A “working biotech approval system” is that of the United States, which invariably “approves” GE crops, i.e. deregulates them, on the basis of an agency review of data and studies, some classified as Confidential Business Information, submitted by the GE crop developer.
This approach has been in place for two decades. For example, a Food and Drug Administration letter to Monsanto in 1996 states, “Based on the safety and nutritional assessment you have conducted, it is our understanding that Monsanto has concluded that corn products derived from this new variety are not materially different in composition, safety, and other relevant parameters from corn currently on the market, and that the genetically modified corn does not raise issues that would require premarket review or approval by FDA.” A 2013 FDA letter to Monsanto regarding a GE soybean “event” deregulates the product, but does not approve it, in almost identical language.
The controversial new trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, has been a tough sell for the Obama Administration. The top four Presidential candidates oppose its passage and support in Congress is waning. The road to TPP approval got a little tougher when 161 food, farm, faith and rural organizations sent a letter to Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to reject the deal.
“The main beneficiaries of the TPP are the companies that buy, process and ship raw agricultural commodities, not the farmers who face real risks from rising import competition. TPP imports will compete against U.S. farmers who are facing declining farm prices that are projected to stay low for years,” the organizations wrote.
At a time when the farm economy is struggling, the 12-nation TPP is being sold as a boost to farmers. But many farm groups are not buying it. “Trade deals do not just add new export markets—the flow of trade goes both ways—and the U.S. has committed to allowing significantly greater market access to imports under the TPP,” the groups explained.
An IATP paper earlier this month raised concerns about the impact of increased imports of milk and whey protein concentrates from the largest dairy exporting company in the world, based in the TPP country New Zealand. U.S. dairy farmers are already suffering under a climate of extremely low prices.
“Dairy in Crisis: TPP Dumping on Dairy Farmers,” by IATP intern Erik Katovich, is a sober recitation of facts that raise important questions about the objectives of the U.S. Trade Representative’s (USTR) negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement.
First, as Katovich reports, global dairy prices continue to drop due to worldwide oversupply of raw milk, and U.S. dairy processors are dumping millions of gallons of raw milk into sewers. The dumped milk contradicts the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) objectives to reduce food waste and conserve the natural resources used to grow dairy cattle feed. During the negotiations, the USDA projected a 20 percent increase in U.S. dairy imports by 2025 due to TPP rules. Given the vast U.S. oversupply of raw milk, why did the USTR lower the tariff rates on dairy products, including on milk protein concentrate (MPC), a powder that contains 30 to 40 percent of the protein of raw milk and casein, a starch used in processed cheese? In other words, why did the USTR favor MPC and casein importers to the detriment of U.S. dairy farmers?