Proceeding from the commonsense notion (and economic principle) that in a free market, buyers should have access to sufficient information to make educated choices, the law required retailers to tell customers the country of origin of a variety of foods, including meat, fruits, vegetables and nuts. I might not know where all the pieces of my cell phone were made—and there are serious issues with that—but I don't plan to eat my phone. Why shouldn’t I be able to know where my food comes from?
The big meat companies have objected the loudest to COOL. Canadian and Mexican meat groups took the U.S. to court at the World Trade Organization (WTO) when the USDA first announced its regulations for implementing COOL, charging that the rules would discriminate against them, and they won. To the Obama Administration’s credit, they issued a revised rule that actually strengthened COOL, requiring more detail about where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered. The current suit is intended to block the revised regulations that were issued this spring in response to the WTO ruling.
As two of the largest free trade agreements (TTIP and TPP) in history are being negotiated, free trade agreements like these will become more entrenched in our lives than ever before. Unfortunately, the tangle of rules and regulations—mostly design to keep intact and strengthen corporate interests—can create serious roadblocks for real, earnest work to improve sustainability on the national, state and even local levels. Yes, as local governments work to build policy that includes sustainability standards, they may be on the wrong side of international trade law.
A new IATP report, Sustainability Criteria, Biofuel Policy and Trade Rules makes very clear that if we hope to change policy in any arena—pushing for lower GHG emissions, reducing pollution, producing cleaner energy, or enabling local sourcing—understanding international trade law is an absolutely required first step.
Report author and trade lawyer Eric Gillman uses the state of biofuels policy as a backdrop—including real examples of current biofuel sustainability efforts—to set the stage for examining the larger implications of WTO trade law on all sorts of policy development:
If we are to construct the type of policies needed to address the multiple environmental, social and economic crises that we face, understanding how these policies interact with international trade rules is absolutely required. This paper is a ﬁrst attempt—within the context of biofuel policy—to raise some of these questions and address necessary changes.
Ask anyone who's been working on policy-change or advocacy efforts in any arena long enough and they’ll tell you: Change takes time. Except in very rare cases, big, noticeable shifts take years—often decades—of work by countless people, working on all levels and in different ways to achieve change. On one hand, this glacial pace makes sense. After all, it took years to get where we are—a climate on the fritz, food for some while others go hungry, a financial system that is more akin to an online casino—why should getting somewhere else be any quicker? On the other hand, if we aren’t able to think big about the changes we want, and get caught up in little victories, we risk losing sight of our real goals.
It is in this spirit that Oxfam held an online discussion last year calling on experts from across the food and development policy world to write a series of essays focused on four “big picture” questions:
The launch of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations presents a new challenge to commodity and financial market reform. Those reforms, codified in the U.S. in rules authorized by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010, are intended to prevent a reoccurrence of the big bank bankruptcies that were avoided only by the nearly $30 trillion bailout of mostly U.S. and European financial institutions from 2007 to 2010. The U.S. Department of Treasury has announced its opposition to the inclusion of financial services in the TTIP. However, according to Inside U.S. Trade (subscription required), the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) said that it was evaluating the benefits of including financial services, and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said that financial services would be included.
Earlier this week, Andrew Pollack reported in the New York Times that biotech companies like Monsanto, Dupont and Dow Chemical announced through an industry association that they would be more transparent with the public about the chemicals and genetically modified seeds they sell. According to Cathleen Enright, executive vice president at the Council for Biotechnology Information (BIO), “We have not done a very good job communicating about GMOs. We want to get into the conversation.”
To move that conversation along, they’ve opened a new web site, GMOAnswers.com. Any move toward greater transparency from companies who have spent decades suing farmers, spending millions to prevent the labeling of food containing GMOs, hiring private security firms to break into their critics offices and steal information—not to mention generally bullying anybody who questions the safety and value of their products—should be good news. But like with most news from chemical and seed companies, it is another reason to worry that the public will be misled and the issues will be futher obfuscated.
In the early morning hours Monday, on a remote road near the Texas-Mexico border, Mexican marines picked a deadly and rotten piece of fruit when it captured Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, the sadistic boss of Los Zetas criminal cartel. Los Zetas appeared on the scene in 1999, an elite unit of the Mexican military that went rogue, working at first for the Gulf drug cartel and eventually breaking off to form their own criminal organization known for employing extremely brutal methods of torture, terror and mass murder. Los Zetas quickly became a major force in Mexican drug trafficking.
Drug cartels existed long before the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, but not drug cartels as we know them today. As we approach the 20th anniversary of NAFTA, we can no longer ignore its contribution to building a powerful and violent criminal enterprise that has brought Mexico close to being labeled a failed state and made the Mexican-U.S. border into a war zone.
Most often when we analyze trade agreements, the focus is on trade volumes, jobs and manufacturing statistics, poverty levels and immigration—all extremely important ways to understand the impact of neoliberal policies bequeathed to us from Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. But to fully appreciate how devastating free trade has been, we need to look more closely at the aftermath of free trade on the bonds that hold communities together. It starts out small, a single thread that eventually leads to unraveling the whole cloth.
Transparency and trade negotiations don’t seem to go together these days. Recent revelations in Spiegel disclosed that the U.S. government had been spying on its EU “partners” connected to negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP, probably better stated as the Trans Atlantic Free Trade agreement, or TAFTA, which very much rhymes with NAFTA). The French and German governments are outraged, with some parliamentarians calling for a suspension of the talks, slated to start next week in Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, the only way civil society groups find out about the negotiations are through basically one-way conversations, where we express our concerns to trade officials, or through leaked negotiating documents. One such text came our way over the weekend, a set of position papers summarizing some of the EU’s initial goals on regulatory harmonization, which would be sent to the U.S. ahead of the talks. It includes initial proposals on regulatory issues involving the automotive sector, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, Sanitary and Phytosanitary issues (SPS), competition policy, a proposal for a chapter on trade and sustainable development, trade in raw materials and energy, and an ambitious proposal for cross-cutting disciplines on regulatory issues. It starts out by asserting that, “the TTIP offers a unique chance to give new momentum to the development and implementation of international regulations and standards (multilateral or otherwise plurilateral). This should reduce the risk of countries resorting to unilateral and purely national solutions, leading to regulatory segmentation that could have an adverse effect on international trade and investment.”
In December 2012, I received an email from Frances (Frankie) Moore Lappé, a woman whose name I had known since I was a teenager interested in hunger and poverty issues and reading all I could on the subject. I was honored. Frankie was reaching out to organizations and individuals who work to end hunger to ask if we had read the FAO’s 2012 State of Food Insecurity in the World (SOFI) report and if so, what we had made of it. Frankie was concerned about a number of things, including that the report presented too rosy a view on how the world’s governments were doing in their ambition to eliminate hunger, and too rosy a view on what economic growth could do about the problem.
It did not take Frankie long to persuade a group of us, including IATP, to take notice and formalize our concerns. Those concerns include:
As the U.S. Farm Bill debate drags on like a bad dream you can’t wake up from, Europe is entering the final stretch of multi-year negotiations on the 2014–2020 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). As with the Farm Bill, agreement on the CAP is far from a sure thing.
In the U.S., we have the House of Representatives working overtime to eliminate funding for almost everything in the Farm Bill. The President is threatening to veto it if Congress takes too much from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamp) program, which accounts for close to 70 percent of the Farm Bill’s cost.
In Europe, the CAP debates have a familiar ring over direct payments and capping and coupling aid. Unlike the U.S., high on the list are proposals designed to “Green the CAP,” which includes addressing environmental and economic challenges. The CAP debate is simplified by not including a massive food aid program like SNAP, but complicated by a process that in the current phase is called “triolgues.”
Triolgues bring together the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Council to hammer out the final agreement. In the European Parliament, civil society organizations like ARC 2020 have led in the debates on greening the CAP. Starting in 2010, ARC 2020 issued an outline for comprehensive reform of European agriculture and rural policy. Their proposals have been met with widespread popular support but serious foot dragging from the EU ministers. A live debate between Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Cioloş and the European ParliamentAgriculture Committee Chair, Paolo De Castro on June 20 will highlight what is at stake.
The announcement last week of a bid by China’s Shuanghui International to acquire Smithfield Foods Incorporated came midway through my research trip to Beijing for IATP’s initiative on the globalization of industrial meat production. The responses to the news from back home have been all over the map, albeit fairly predictable. But what are they saying in China? Below I share some initial views from the press, blogosphere, academia and government. I’ll have more later this week.
The government seems positive about the deal. The first thing I noticed was the use of the word “merger” in the official Xinhua News Service’s initial piece on the acquisition. (The U.S. press prefers “sale” or “takeover.”) Xinhua’s second article actually uses “Win-Win” in the title, and describes how the merger will relieve the U.S. of the burden of our excess pork while easing trade deficits and improving Shuanghui’s food safety standards. “We can learn a lot from the industry leader,” Shuanghui CEO Wan Long is quoted as saying. Clearly he has never Googled “Smithfield recall.”