Food insecurity is a lucrative endeavor for U.S. agribusiness corporations. As a matter of course, hunger has taken a backseat to maintaining a dominant trade position when it comes to U.S. trade negotiations and domestic policy. As long as the U.S. holds its position as the world's largest agricultural exporter, and import-dependent countries continue to be bound by rules that exploit their vulnerability to volatile commodity markets, U.S. agribusiness will profit indefinitely at the expense of the most vulnerable.
In order to address global hunger effectively, the U.S. government will have to acknowledge the effect its current agricultural policy has on global food security and extend the same lenience to allow developing countries the reestablishment of sovereignty in their own food systems without threat of dispute settlement or retaliatory trade sanctions. As it stands, wealth, subsidy classification, export credits and food aid contribute to a system of subjugation and persisting power disparities.
Inequalities in power between nations exist before negotiations begin. Initial positions of wealth determine the degree to which countries can leverage the allowed subsidies outlined within international agricultural agreements to promote food security and rural development. Developed countries’ subsidies comprise the “lion’s share” of global spending supporting agriculture (though they are, in theory, bound by greater reduction commitments under trade agreements). This raises the question, “Given the inequality in initial positions, must [the situation] inevitably result in inequality in outcomes?” (Matthews 2008, 82). Developing countries’ stagnant progress toward food security and rural development, compared to developed countries relative effectiveness, attests to the importance of economic wealth.
Congress is quietly considering legislation that would speed the passage of two mega trade agreements, and seeks to specifically eliminate government programs that favor “localization.” The bill would give the Obama Administration what is known as “fast track” authority—meaning Congress would surrender its constitutional authority to shape trade agreements negotiated by the president and instead can only vote up or down on the deal.
Why should those working for a fair, sustainable food system care? Perhaps no area of policy has undermined local food systems around the world more than the slew of trade agreements passed over the last several decades. These trade rules cover everything from tariffs, food safety and intellectual property to enshrining corporate rights. They place restrictions on what is allowed in national policies, like the Farm Bill, as well as the state and local level. These deals have heavily tilted the playing field from farmers and consumers toward global agribusiness and food giants like Cargill, Monsanto and Wal-Mart.
Because these trade deals, like NAFTA and CAFTA, have been so blatantly negotiated on behalf of multinational corporations and have contributed to growing income inequality, they’ve been extremely unpopular. This is why the Obama Administration has decided to negotiate these two new trade agreements in secret. That’s right, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (including more than a dozen countries) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (with our biggest trading partner, the EU) is being negotiated entirely behind closed doors. The negotiating text has not been made public, and, amazingly, even many members of Congress are in the dark about what’s happening.
On a slightly chilly morning last Saturday in Berlin, more than 30,000 people marched through the city to raise their voices against industrial agriculture and for good food and good farming. This was the fourth year for the Wir Haben Agrarindustrie Satt (We’re Fed Up with Agribusiness) march, and the biggest so far. The day started off with a breakfast led by family farmers from around Germany and the region. They led the march with a caravan of tractors, followed by slow food, animal rights, environmental, trade, development and other activists in a joyous celebration of food justice and local democracy.
The march was the culmination of a series of events during Green Week. We started with a public forum on agriculture and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (“TTIP: No We Can’t!”) organized by Martin Haüsling, a Green Party Member of the European Parliament. The German government held its annual Global Forum for Food and Agriculture, which included informative sessions organized by NGOs, academics and corporations on the future of the food system. All great events, but hard to beat the Snippledisco (Disco Soup), where hundreds of people chopped vegetables deemed not quite good enough for the supermarket to pounding music, at once protesting food waste, preparing soup for the demo the next day and just having a great time.
The U.S. trade debate shifted into high gear yesterday with the introduction of Congressional bills to fast track trade deals. If approved, this would give the administration the authority to negotiate trade deals behind closed doors and then submit the resulting agreements to Congress for an up or down vote, with very limited debate and no possibility of amendments. Unions, environmental organizations and many other civil society groups immediately denounced the bill as undemocratic and out of date. Some 151 Democrats issued a letter last week expressing opposition to the bill, so its passage is far from assured.
Even beyond the undemocratic nature of the fast-track mechanism, the bill includes negotiating objectives that should raise alarms for advocates of food sovereignty and international development. It would direct the office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to eliminate “localization barriers to trade.” Rather than celebrating the emergence of strong local economies, that provision would direct USTR to "eliminate and prevent measures that require United States producers and service providers to locate facilities, intellectual property, or other assets in a country as a market access or investment condition, including indigenous innovation measures." That kind of measure, if enacted in a trade agreement, could easily boomerang back to the U.S. to undermine local content requirements for job creation or even perhaps local foods programs.
The illusion of choice takes away from our ability to get to a just, sustainable food system, meaning we’ll have to “Vote with our Vote.” We can’t afford to just “Vote with our Fork.”
We’ve been told that we in the U.S. have the best, safest food system in the world. Without getting bogged down in endless debate, let’s get some context: the U.S. has 6 percent of households with very low food security and almost 9 percent more who are not sure they’ll have enough money or resources for food (at the same time, our average food availability is equal to 3,800 calories per person per day, much more than the recommended 1900 to 2500 calories/person/day); we throw away and waste 30 to 50 percent of our food; our food system is rated as fourth in food safety; we’re first (among industrialized countries) in overweight and obesity and tied with Greece for second in terms of the number of people who can’t reliably afford adequate food. That’s right: despite having some of the world’s cheapest food, we have one of the highest levels among wealthy countries of people not being able to reliably afford it.
On November 21, the U.N. General Assembly’s Third Committee (The Committee) adopted a resolution on “The human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.” All U.N. member states agreed that the rights to water and sanitation are derived from the right to an adequate standard of living. As a result, these rights are now implicitly recognized as being part of International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
This means that for the very first time, all U.N. member States affirm that the rights to water and sanitation are legally binding in international law. This is indeed a moment for all of us to celebrate.
Yet this agreement is marred by the reluctance of the United States to join all other nations in a universal agreement on the definition of these rights (as defined in a resolution of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted by consensus in September 2013).
Writing about this, an Amnesty International press release says: “At the time [of the unanimous adoption of the UNHRC resolution] the United States was the only country that disassociated itself from the definition of these rights and stated that it did not agree ‘with the expansive way this right has been articulated.’ However, it has not explained what aspects of this definition it does not accept.” The press release continues: “Such rights are only ‘expansive’ if one adopts a 19th century understanding of hygiene and of government duties to ensure the provision of public services.”
IATP's Shefali Sharma is reporting from the 9th WTO Ministerial in Bali, Indonesia.
2 p.m., Bali, Indonesia
It is supposed to be the final hours of the 9th WTO Ministerial here in Bali but trade negotiators are milling in the hallways, conjecturing whether the meeting will be extended until tomorrow or wrap up by 5:00 p.m., whether there will be a “take it or leave it text” or further negotiations late into the night. There have been several contentious issues, including whether to finalize yet another trade agreement on trade facilitation and a non-committal package for the Least Developed Countries (LDC). However, the issue most critical to poor countries concerns food security. The current WTO framework on agriculture is being tested on its ability to accommodate government procurement for food security programs in developing countries.
India has been in the spotlight the last three days since the meeting began because it has stood firmly against the U.S. opposition to allow such programs from violating existing WTO rules. The existing rules were unfairly crafted in the mid-80s by the U.S. and the EU, but never mind that. The U.S. is insisting that India’s Food Security Act would exceed limits set in the agriculture agreement for “trade distorting” subsidies. Never mind too that the U.S. has negotiated space at the WTO to reconfigure its own domestic agriculture and food security programs.
Update: The ministerial text was accepted on Saturday morning with minor changes to assuage Cuba's concerns. See a video report from Shefali Sharma regarding Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia's move to block consensus on the agreement on the morning of December 7.
IATP's Shefali Sharma is reporting from the 9th WTO Ministerial in Bali, Indonesia.
3:00 a.m., Bali, Indonesia
The WTO’s “Bali Package” was supposed to have been adopted this early morning of December 7 after trade diplomats rolled in for a final meeting at midnight. Earlier in the evening, at 8:00 p.m. on December 6, the WTO secretariat had shared a set of decisions proposed by the chair that comprise the Bali Package. The meeting was originally scheduled to close by 5:00 p.m.. However, at the time of this writing, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua have said to have blocked consensus and the meeting has been adjourned. Cuba’s major issue has been language in the Trade Facilitation decision on “freedom of transit” that fails to address the problems it faces with the U.S. embargo against Cuba. The meeting has been adjourned to reconvene sometime in the next hours.
In the category of “praise more fit for a eulogy,” U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman is reported to have said of the last minute negotiations to prepare a package for upcoming WTO Ministerial in Bali: "It's unclear whether they will succeed or not. We certainly hope they will succeed. But [the WTO] has served a very important function and will continue to serve a very important function as a dispute settlement mechanism either way." (Inside US Trade, November 15, 2013).
Froman seems to be saying it is okay if Bali is a failure—which, given the latest news from Geneva, is a good thing because the meeting has failure written all over it.
There are lots of reasons why the system is failing. The Doha Agenda, adopted in 2001 and still ostensibly the framework for negotiations, should not have been agreed in the first place. Multilateral trade rules are worth getting right, but the Uruguay Round agreements on which the rules now in place are based got far too much wrong.
The trade agenda launched in Doha in 2001 is dead but the corpse is not yet buried. Most developing countries say they want it all still—Doha resuscitated—while the majority of industrialized countries want to salvage the corpse for parts; they’ll take deeper deregulation of services, more restrictive intellectual property rights and the harmonization of regulations for transnational firms, but are happy to leave rotting their promise to finally eliminate export subsidies in agriculture, make real cuts to trade-distorting support, or support disciplines on agricultural exporters that are as stringent as the disciplines imposed on food importers.
People in the U.S. may still remember how the streets were shut down in Seattle exactly 14 years ago (1999) as trade diplomats from all around the world gathered for the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) 3rd Ministerial meeting. Back then, there were protests on the streets by citizens who asserted that trade policy could not be made without public debate and behind closed doors because of its implications for everyday concerns such as food, environment, health and other issues that shape our lives. At that meeting, there was a revolt by developing countries as well, who felt that a backroom deal was being made by a few powerful countries that would then be imposed on them as an international agreement. Though the U.S. and other rich countries failed to launch a new trade round in Seattle, they succeeded two years later, in Doha, in the wake of September 11.
Fast forward 12 years and we have a WTO stalemate once more in time for the 9th WTO Ministerial in Bali next week. The conflict proves yet again that trade policy cannot be made in a vacuum, particularly when it comes to critical human concerns such as governments’ obligation to protect their citizens’ right to food.
The controversy pits the government of India against the United States, but in reality, the controversial G-33 proposal (named after the group of developing countries who have tabled it) is about allowing all developing countries the policy space to spend public resources on food stocks to ensure price stability and food security. U.S. opposition to that proposal has focused in part on the argument that this would limit export opportunities for companies wanting to sell in the Indian market. U.S. agribusinesses and commodity groups also complained in an October letter to the US. Trade Representative (USTR) that the proposed creation of food reserves would unfairly advantage producers in those countries.