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environmental organizations and many other civil society groups immediately denounced the bill as undemocratic and out of date.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.
Eric Holt-Giménez, director of the amazing food policy think tank FoodFirst, recently wrote in the Huffington Post that if healthy, organic food is unaffordable, this is a problem of wages and rights, not inherently a problem with healthy, organic foods. Meanwhile, Doug Rauch, the former president of the grocery chain Trader Joe’s is set to open a market “to repurpose the perfectly edible produce slightly past its sell-by date that ends up in the trash . . . [the market] will prepare and repackage the food at deeply discounted prices.” One could take Rauch’s apparently noble kludge to reinforce the old saw that people only care about price when it comes to food.
This, of course, is nonsense.
A Spanish version of this commentary originally appeared in La Jornada.
One of the clearest stories from the NAFTA experience has been the devastation wreaked on the Mexican countryside by dramatic increases in imports of cheap U.S. corn. But while Mexican farmers, especially small-scale farmers, undoubtedly lost from the deal, that doesn’t mean that U.S. farmers have won. Prices for agricultural goods have been on a roller coaster of extreme price volatility caused by unfair agriculture policies, recklessly unregulated speculation on commodity markets, and increasing droughts and other climate chaos. Each time prices took their terrifying ride back down, more small- and medium-scale farmers were forced into bankruptcy while concentration of land ownership, and agricultural production, grew.
It’s hard to separate the impacts of NAFTA from another big change in U.S. farm policy: the 1996 Farm Bill, which set in place a shift from supply management and regulated markets to an accelerated policy of “get big or get out.” Farmers were encouraged to increase production with the promise of expanded export markets—including to Mexico. But almost immediately, the failure of this policy was evident as commodity prices dropped like a stone, and Congress turned to “emergency” payments, later codified as direct payment farm subsidies, to clean up the mess and keep rural economies afloat.
Then, as new demand for biofuels increased the demand for corn, and investors turned from failing mortgage markets to speculate on grains, energy and other commodities, prices soared. It wasn’t only the prices of farm goods that rose, however, but also prices of land, fuel, fertilizers and other petrochemical based agrochemicals. Net farm incomes were much more erratic.