On May 8th, President Obama told a crowd in Oregon: No trade agreement is going to force us to change our laws. Twelve days later, the House Agriculture Committee voted 38-6 to repeal in its entirety country-of-origin-labeling (COOL) for beef, pork and poultry. The House vote came in response to a May 18 ruling by the World Trade Organization (WTO) that the U.S. had violated global trade rules by requiring supermarket labels on beef and pork to indicate where livestock was born, raised and slaughtered. The meat industry is elated.
The longstanding principal goal of U.S. trade policy to advance U.S. economic interests.
So, why is the Obama administration fighting so hard to help Monsanto -- a company that is openly trying to slash its taxes by moving its headquarters from St. Louis to Switzerland?
Earlier this month, Monsanto made an initial offer to purchase the Swiss-based Syngenta. The deal, if completed, would allow Monsanto to move its headquarters from outside St. Louis to Switzerland, thereby reducing U.S. corporate tax payments. According to financial analysts at Piper Jaffray, Monsanto would gain – and U.S. taxpayers would lose – about $500 million per year in tax revenues.
It would also create the largest seed and crop chemical company in the world.
At this moment, the Obama administration is undertaking a high profile effort to knock down global resistance to genetically engineered food and crops. It is advancing trade treaties both for Europe (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP) and Asia (Trans Pacific Partnership, TPP) to accomplish this goal.
Monsanto is the world’s largest producer of seeds, many of which are genetically engineered. It would be a major beneficiary of these treaties.
There were some decidedly Kafkaesque aspects of the Congressional debate this week on Fast Track legislation, designed to speed through the passage of secret trade deals that could have a serious impact on our food system. At first, the Senate refused to approve a bill to limit debate on Fast Track. Then, when the Senate did approve that bill, it turned out the real debate over Fast Track wouldn’t be happening in the Senate at all, but rather in the House (but not yet).
What?? Essentially, the Senate votes this week were over a procedural mechanism (cloture) to bring Fast Track to a vote (but not yet over Fast Track itself). The actual Fast Track vote will likely come in the Senate in the next few weeks. As we’ve discussed before, Fast Track would limit Congressional debate on trade agreements to an up or down vote, no amendments allowed. It would include the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP, with 11 other Pacific Rim countries) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP, with Europe) and any other trade agreements negotiated over the next six years, including those completed by the next President. The votes this week were notable mainly because the Senate action had been expected to pave the way for a much more contentious vote in the House of Representatives. And it didn’t work out that way at all.
As the Senate lurches toward consideration of Fast Track, it's important to remember that the debate is more than a political game. Fast Track Authority is an abdication of Congressional responsibility and accountability. Adding insult to injury, the trade agreements that such authority would, in effect, guarantee are the product of non-democratic and secretive processes heavily engineered by corporations. Chiseling away at what is left of our democracy isn’t popular among the majority of the people who vote for Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians. That is why there is unity among the opposition to Fast Track, and that is why President Obama has a political problem on his hands that will not be solved by offering rides in Air Force One, or by promising to offset the inevitable (and proven) destruction of jobs that will follow right on the heels of ratifying two new trade agreements should Fast Track be approved. Ultimately, representatives of the people in Washington DC have to get elected. And anyone who steps up to vote YES on Fast Track authority will have a hard time explaining, quite soon, exactly why they dodged their responsibility to ensure that trade agreements serve the interests of the people. Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians. Voters.
(An editorial from IATP president, Juliette Majot in response to an April 25, 2015 editorial in the Minneapolis StarTribune endorsing Fast Track legislation currently before Congress.)
Fast-track Trade Promotion Authority (TPA), supported by the Star Tribune in an April 25 editorial (“Congress should pass ‘fast track’ on trade”), requires Congress to all but abandon its oversight role in trade negotiations, reducing that role to a yes-or-no vote on negotiating texts of enormous importance to nearly every part of our economy and governmental operations.
The Star Tribune writes that critics of U.S. trade policy “mischaracterize” this trade negotiations system as “somehow secretive.” In fact, the U.S. trade representative has chosen to negotiate trade agreements under Executive Order 13526, which classifies negotiations as national security information. The public cannot read what is being negotiated ostensibly on its behalf until the agreement is completed, signed by the president and presented to Congress. Under “fast track,” no amendments are allowed. Indeed, members of Congress can currently only read the negotiating texts under armed guard and without being able to take notes. Only advisers cleared by the trade representative, overwhelmingly corporate lobbyists, have substantive input to the content of the negotiating texts. This process is the very definition of “secretive.”
One of the most surprising parts of my visits to Europe around trade issues has been the misconceptions people have about the U.S. And I’m not talking about generalizations about problems in our food system, but the idea that all Americans support free trade agreements. At a recent meeting in Brussels, people from many European countries complained of being branded as anti-American because of the concerns they are raising about TTIP’s impacts on European environment and food systems.
But in fact, campaigns in the U.S. and around the world on TTIP, TPP and other free trade agreements are for the most part not based on nationalism but instead on issues of democracy. Who decides if a community can ban a toxic waste dump, the government or the investor? Under NAFTA’s Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism, the investor won millions of dollars in compensation over a Mexican community’s refusal to reopen a toxic waste dump. Who decides on Country of Origin Labeling for beef? Under a WTO dispute brought by Mexico and Canada – with a strong push from U.S. industry -- the U.S. is being pressed to abolish this sensible program. Perhaps the most basic problem with NAFTA, CAFTA, TTIP, TPP and other free trade agreements is that they give new powers to corporations to set those kinds of rules. As trade campaigners know, the issue is not whether the U.S. or Europe wins, but which corporations stand to benefit.
We have entered a new era of corporate rights—where, in their quest to access natural resources around the world, multinational firms now routinely ride roughshod over governments and communities. Two trade tribunal rulings issued last month explain how.
Digby Neck, on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, is a popular whale-watching area. After hearing community concerns about the environmental impact of a proposal to expand a basalt quarry, a Canadian government review panel denied approval of the project. The Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador requires oil companies drilling offshore to invest a portion of their profits into local research and development projects. Last month, separate trade tribunals ruled both of these Canadian policies illegal and awarded damages to multinational corporations to compensate them for the loss of anticipated profits under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
These corporate rights cases, known as Investor State Dispute Settlements (ISDS), are rapidly on the rise, says Public Citizen. And based on leaked text from the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) posted last month – they could become even more common in the years to come.
For more than four years, IATP has been submitting comments on proposed U.S. regulations to limit the share of positions controlled by financial speculators in commodity derivatives markets. A position is a financial interest in one or more contracts of a commodity, e.g. Chicago Board of Trade No. 2 Yellow Corn. Commercial hedgers who can show that they have a bona fide commercial need to use the commodity and to manage price risk in a given contract—rather than accumulating contracts without bona fide need, in order to manipulate the commodity’s price—are exempt from position limits placed on financial speculators.
If financial speculators chronically exceed position limits, excessive speculation distorts prices for commercial hedgers, often to a degree where they fail to manage their price risks. For example, food processors will take positions to try to prevent price increases in their raw materials costs. Price risk management failure, if prolonged, can be devastating at every point of a commodity supply chain from producer to consumer.
IATP has submitted what well may be its last comment, for the foreseeable future, on a Commodity Futures Trading Commission rule to establish speculation position limits in 28 of the most frequently traded commodity derivatives contracts, 19 of them agricultural. The “Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010” authorized the CFTC to set position limits by 2011 to prevent market manipulation, excessive speculation by financial entities and price distortion.
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP, is a massive trade deal currently being negotiated between the EU and US, and could have major implications for our food standards if completed.
Laws that check our foods are safe or minimise the risk to people or the planet could be compromised if TTIP goes ahead. Europe's food production and many of our laws are often stricter than in the USA. Yet big business wants food products currently banned in the EU, but on sale in America, to automatically be allowed in Europe through TTIP.
Here are some of the foods produced in worrying ways we could see served up on European plates if TTIP is agreed.
Disinfectant meat washes
Chicken, turkey, pork and other meats are regularly washed or sprayed with disinfectants in the USA. These so-called 'pathogen reduction treatments', such as hyper chlorinated water and acid washes, are supposed to reduce harmful bacteria. But this could allow poor hygiene standards along the food chain to be hidden, with meat being disinfected only at the end before going on sale.
Americans are much more vocal today than we have ever been about the kind of food we eat, where it comes from and what it does to our bodies and our planet. And though powerful agriculture and food corporations are able to stifle laws and regulations that hold them accountable to our interests, these changing American attitudes are forcing a shift in the way Big Food Retail operates. McDonald’s recent announcement to stop using antibiotics used to treat humans is one clear example.