Tomorrow, Thursday, April 17, the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) will release over 29 seed varieties into the global commons and humanity's “moral economy.” This new initiative hopes to provide a counterweight to private patenting of seeds, which has undermined farmers’ rights around the world.
OSSI is composed of faculty, breeders, students and supporters from Washington State University, Oregon State University, High Mowing Organic Seeds, Lupine Knoll Farm, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Wild Garden Seeds, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, among other members and allies. The group has sought a way to support the innovative efforts, traditions, and rights of those who breed seeds, by pioneering a system whereby plant varieties could be released into a “protected commons”: a commons populated by those who agree to share but effectively inaccessible to those who do not—a necessary tool in light of private corporate interests' persistent and too-often successful attempts to lock away elements of humanity's common agricultural heritage behind patents and other forms of kleptocratic intellectual property.
Trade negotiators from the United States and the European Union are meeting in Brussels this week behind closed doors to inch towards a transatlantic free trade agreement, benignly referred to as the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment partnership (TTIP). Twenty-nine U.S. based community, farm, environmental, animal welfare and consumer organizations sent a letter today to United States Trade Representative Michael Froman voicing strong concerns about prominent corporate meat industry demands in TTIP. The aim of the agreement is to “harmonize” standards between the European Union and the U.S. on a wide range of issues that touch our lives, including how our food (meat in particular) is produced and processed and who controls that system.
Over 20 corporate meat and feed industry associations and representatives submitted public comments to USTR last May. Together, their comments demonstrate how these interests seek to weaken standards on meat and animal products that could undermine food safety, public health, animal welfare, worker safety and environmental regulations.
Across the U.S. and the EU, citizens, farmers and civil society organizations are advocating for a fairer, healthier and more humane form of meat production that eliminates the use of chemicals, hormones and antibiotics and which allows independent and local producers to flourish. The letter states:
This September, it will be five years since President Barack Obama and other Group of 20 leaders committed to regulating the over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives markets jointly and in each of their jurisdictions. The world’s largest banks would have defaulted in 2008–2009 on their bets in the nearly unregulated $700 trillion global OTC market had it not been for publicly funded bailouts, above all the $29 trillion U.S. Federal Reserve Bank emergency loan program of 2007–2010.
Fulfilling the G-20 commitments has been a political, legislative, budgetary, regulatory and technological struggle, due in part to the opposition of those same publicly rescued banks. For example, the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA), which represents OTC broker dealers and their largest corporate clients, is one of three parties suing the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to prevent the application of the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation to the foreign affiliates of U.S. OTC broker dealers. Losing foreign affiliate trades, booked to their U.S. headquartered firms, triggered the 2008-2009 default cascades.
One of the most controversial provisions in free trade agreements is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism, which gives corporations the right to sue governments over public measures that undermine their expected profits. It’s a pretty outrageous assault on democratic structures. In fact, when I tell people new to the trade debate about it, at first they often don’t believe me.
But it is a fact. ISDS is included in bilateral and regional trade and investment pacts around the world. The supposed justification is that legal systems in many countries don’t adequately protect foreign investments, so it creates a special tribunal just for them. For example, under NAFTA, three U.S. agribusiness firms sued the Mexican government over restrictions on high-fructose corn syrup, and won $169 million in compensation. Tobacco giant Phillip Morris, operating through its Hong Kong subsidiary, has sued the Australian government over new rules on cigarette labels that highlight fthe health dangers. If that one seems a bit convoluted, it’s because when the Australian government signed a free trade agreement with the United States, it refused to include ISDS, saying its legal system was perfectly able to handle any disputes. But Australia was already bound by an investment pact with Hong Kong.
Busy hands make for busy minds—that’s the theory behind experiential, or hands-on learning. IATP’s new high school–level Farm to School Youth Leadership Curriculum, released today, is designed with this in mind: Beyond learning about sourcing local food and the research that goes into localizing their school lunch, students actually participate in creating or expanding a Farm to School program, assisting their school lunchroom staff and administration with the nitty gritty of sourcing local foods for lunch.
From the press release:
The Farm to School Youth Leadership Curriculum is comprised of six lessons that can be taught consecutively over a semester or as single lessons or activities to complement other classes. Each lesson contains a lesson summary, facilitator preparation notes, activities, worksheets, recommended optional work and further resources for students and teachers. Lessons include themes such as “School Lunch: How Does it Really Work?” and “Communicating with Producers of Local Foods.”
Development of the Farm to School Youth Leadership Curriculum was a collaborative process, including consultation with educators, food service professionals and Farm to School experts, supported by the Center for Prevention at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, the John P. and Eleanor R. Yackel Foundation, the Minnesota Agricultural Education Leadership Council and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Economists are still struggling to quantify the trillions of dollars of costs to the global economy of collapse and bailouts of the world largest private banks. Three Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas economists “conservatively estimate” $6-14 trillion dollars of damage to the U.S. economy alone from the 2007-2009 financial and commodity market crisis. At the upper end of their estimate, that’s $120,000 for every man, woman and child in the U.S. The global damage caused by the global bank near defaults, publicly funded bank rescues, and fiscal crises that followed the rescues, has yet to be estimated.
International cooperation on the regulation of global banks is required because of the global trading practices and corporate structure of the largest banks, most of which are major commodity traders. For example, according to another Fed study, the seven largest U.S. headquartered bank holding companies have about 5,700 foreign subsidiaries in dozens of foreign jurisdictions. To judge by the geographic distribution of these subsidiaries, the largest banks are structurally transatlantic institutions that require intensive U.S. and EU regulatory cooperation to prevent another 2007-2009 debacle.
Was it just exhaustion from two-plus years of negotiations that finally produced the Farm Bill that is expected to be signed by the President this week? Or, was it the sense that “it could have been a lot worse” when compared with a mean-spirited, destructive Farm Bill passed by the House of Representatives last year. For whatever reason, there is a sense that a deeply flawed Farm Bill—the terms of which were dictated largely by austerity fanatics from the start—is the best we’ll get under the current political environment.
That’s a problem for all of us. It’s definitely a problem for the growing number of working age Americans who rely on food stamps. This Farm Bill cuts food stamp benefits (about 80 percent of the Farm Bill costs) by $8.6 billion.
It’s a problem for the environment and the urgent need to help farmers shift toward more climate resilient production systems to deal with extreme weather events. The bill cuts about $6 billion from conservation programs, the first time conservation funding has been cut since it became part of the Farm Bill in 1985 (excellent analysis by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition). Those cuts reduce the number of acres for the Conservation Reserve Program (which takes sensitive land out of production to protect habitat and wildlife) from 32 million to 24 million acres. It also limits the new acres of enrollment into the Conservation Stewardship Program (which support conservation measures on working farms) to 10 million per year—a cut of 2.8 million acres per year over the next decade.
Farmers, union, environmental and women’s activists gathered in Mexico City last week to take stock of the lessons from NAFTA and plan strategies to confront the next big threat: the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). One of the earliest lessons from the NAFTA experience was that people and environments in all three countries were affected. The stories from Mexico, Canada and the U.S. were remarkably similar: environmental destruction, threats to union and community organizing, and, in all sectors, a marked increase in corporate concentration as companies gained new abilities to move different aspects of production across borders in search of lower costs and higher profits.
This has been especially true in agriculture. As part of the multisectoral forum, more than 100 members of ANEC, (the National Association of Rural Commercialization Enterprises, which brings together more than 60,000 Mexican small- and medium-scale farmers), organized a farmers’ forum with international allies. Alberto Arroyo, a longtime leader in the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade (RMALC), explained that Mexico’s dependency on food imports has increased dramatically since the agreement began, from 16 percent before NAFTA, to more than 42 percent today. That situation is even more alarming when we consider that today nearly half of Mexican families, even with two wage earners, can’t afford the “canasta basica” of basic necessities. Adding on to the devastation wreaked on the countryside by the influx of cheap corn under NAFTA, TPP would compel Mexican coffee farmers to compete with cheap Vietnamese robusta coffee.
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.