Trade agreements can affect a huge range of laws and programs that determine how our economies work, how we grow and sell food, and who benefits―or loses. And they lock those decisions into permanent agreements that in many cases supersede state, local and even federal laws.
Shockingly, these powerful agreements aren’t the result of a thorough and informed public debate. While bills in Congress can be contentious, they do provide at least the possibility that the public can weigh in and even influence the final legislation. Under Fast Track rules, trade deals are negotiated behind closed doors, with the final results presented to Congress for an up or down vote, no amendments allowed, and limited floor debate.
Sometime soon, perhaps in the next month, Congress will be asked to give the Obama administration Fast Track authority. Earlier this year, IATP and more than 600 groups told Congress they should reject Fast Track, and instead take new a approach on trade, one that gives a voice to those most affected. We are launching a new webpage called Trade Secrets that uncovers what’s wrong with these new mega trade deals and how they affect our everyday lives, with our first piece focused on Fast Track.
Five years ago today, the Supreme Court dealt a devastating setback to those working to reform our food and farm system. That ruling, known as Citizens United, granted corporations the same rights as people to make political donations. As a series of reports released last week show, the ruling opened the door to a flood of corporate money into political elections – expanding the influence of corporations (not just agribusiness and food companies) over our democracy and government institutions. The good news: a growing movement to take back our democracy from corporate interests is fighting back and winning some real victories.
We are hearing more and more news from Europe that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is running into stiff head winds, and I had the pleasure of seeing this growing storm of opposition first-hand in Berlin last week. I attended a series of events culminating in the WIR HABEN ES SATT! “We’re Fed Up” march, a massive mobilization of people saying no to industrial agriculture. This year, a special focus was on TTIP and GMOs and demanding new protections for animal welfare. This was the fifth year of the march, and at 50,000 people, the biggest so far.
One of the organizers of the march, ARC2020, described the event: “Farmers and beekeepers, tractors and stiltwalkers, samba bands and chanting citizens of all ages made their colourful way from Potsdamer Platz to the Angela Merkel’s chancellery. Their aim? To say no to a broken industrialised globalised food system and yes to an alternative.”
IATP’s Shefali Sharma spoke at the We’re Fed Up rally following the march, along with Alessa Hartmann from the German organization Power-Shift. Shefali spoke about the reasons people in the U.S. are opposed to free trade agreements. We’ve seen what happens when corporations gain power at the expense of family farmers and local economies. “But,” she added, “the corporations and the Obama administration haven’t accounted for the massive organizing of unions, environmentalists, faith and farm groups to stop fast track and set our food systems in a different direction.”
IATP is proud to announce that our for-profit subsidiary, Peace Coffee, was among the first Minnesota businesses to file as a public benefit corporation (PBC). This is the state’s newest form of business incorporation for for-profit and socially minded businesses.
These filings took place earlier this month on the last day of Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie’s tenure in office. Prior to his election to state office, Mark founded the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in 1986, and ten years later, under his leadership, IATP founded Peace Coffee as a way to demonstrate that the policies we advocate for internationally can support fair trade businesses that provide fair prices to growers, benefit to the environment and an excellent product for consumers.
Businesses incorporating as a PBC pledge to pursue public benefits among their primary objectives. The new law (Minnesota Statutes 304A) allows for more flexible uses for profits than only dividends for shareholders. Minnesota joins at least 26 other states that provide businesses the option to file as a PBC.
Minnesota PBCs will be required to submit a public annual report that details how they met their public benefit to the Office of the Secretary of State. The public benefit of each corporation is self-defined by the corporation itself and is proclaimed in the articles of incorporation so that investors and the public know the public benefit mission of the business.
We were pleasantly surprised yesterday to learn that the European Commission has taken major steps towards respecting the rights of citizens to see what is being negotiated in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). It published the EU negotiating texts for eight chapters of the agreement, including Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS – on food safety and animal welfare), Technical Barriers to Trade (which could deal with such issues as food labeling), as well as chapters on state-owned enterprises, subsidies and government to government dispute resolution. The Commission committed to releasing draft proposed texts for 16 more TTIP chapters, as well as accompanying fact sheets and position papers related to each chapter. This is a big deal. It means that civil society groups and legislators can go beyond parsing proponent claims about TTIP to see exactly what’s on the table in TTIP, at least from a European perspective.
The European Union’s Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, issued her recommendations to the Commission yesterday for transparency measures to govern the negotiating of EC trade and investment agreements. Ms. O’Reilly said that of the EU TTIP negotiating texts she reviewed, only those concerning market access tariffs and quotas contained commercially sensitive information that justified an EC decision not to release the proposed market access chapter. She recommended that the Commission require the U.S. to justify why each and every of the consolidated EU-U.S. draft negotiating texts should not be made public.
The amazingly terrible new spending agreement reached by the House and Senate this week illustrates the heavy price we all pay for a government increasingly influenced by big corporate and financial industry donors.
This backroom deal has been marketed by some in Congress as a “monumental achievement” demonstrating how Washington can get things done. Instead, it’s really a stocking full of early Christmas gifts for corporate interests at the expense of the rest of us. Here are just a few examples relevant to food and agriculture issues:
The efforts by millions of citizens across the country to label food containing GMOs must have touched a nerve. The likes of DuPont, American Farm Bureau, Coca Cola and General Mills are lobbying hard to get a new bill passed that would prohibit state-based GMO labeling laws—also known as the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act.
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy invites you to join with the likes of the National Farmers Union, Organic Consumers Association and Right-to-Know Minnesota to tell Congress to reject H.R. 4432, The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014 and instead to support mandatory GMO labeling laws.
Don’t let agribusiness and big food keep us in the dark about what is in our food. Take action here!
During the fight to pass and implement the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010, a favorite Wall Street lobbyist tactic was to organize small and large non-financial business owners to talk with members of Congress about the “unintended consequences” for Main Street of regulating Wall Street. Wall Street didn’t want to be seen as directly lobbying for continuing the regulatory exemptions that lead to the big bank bankruptcies and multi-billion dollar bailouts of 2007–2009.
Instead the Chamber of Commerce, International Swaps and Derivatives Association and other lobby groups’ strategy used “Main Street” clients to promote the idea that global banks such as Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan should operate under many of the same rules as small businesses under Dodd-Frank. In sum, they argued, it is in the interest of Main Street business to not reform Wall Street “too much.”
For example, Dodd-Frank exempts municipal electricity and gas companies from having to put money down (margin collateral) to trade to manage their price risks in the commodity derivatives market. (Derivatives are financial contracts that manage the price risk of an underlying asset, such as wheat, oil or a mortgage interest rate.) Municipal companies must provide service to all, and the cost of posting margin collateral for each trade puts them in a competitive disadvantage with electricity and gas companies that can deny service to the poor. Through their lobbying associations, Wall Street banks argued that they are essential buyers and sellers of such derivatives contracts, and sought to benefit from this margin collateral and other Dodd-Frank exemptions for derivatives trading by commercial users of commodities.
Communities across the United States and Europe are working to transform local economic systems so that they are more sustainable and equitable. Many states and communities are utilizing public procurement programs to support those efforts, especially bidding preferences for healthy, locally grown foods, energy or transportation programs that create local jobs and fair markets. Especially in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Buy American programs have helped ensure that taxpayer-funded programs create local jobs and serve social goals. Farm to School programs that incentivize purchases from local farmers have grown in all 50 U.S. states and many European countries. Innovative efforts are also underway to expand this approach to other institutions such as hospitals, universities and early childcare programs like Head Start.
In a move that could undermine those important initiatives, the European Union has made the opening of U.S. procurement programs to bids by European firms one of its priority goals for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). IATP published a new report today, Local Economies on the Table, which takes a look at what those proposals could mean.
The EU has been insistent on the inclusion of procurement commitments at all levels of government, for all goods, and in all sectors. At a speech in San Francisco, French trade minister Nicole Bricq declared, “Let’s dream a little with respect to public procurement. Why not replace ‘Buy American’ which penalizes our companies with ‘Buy Transatlantic’ which reflects the depth of our mutual commitment?”
A U.S. law requiring the simple labeling of meat and poultry products for the country of origin (COOL) was determined to violate trade rules by a dispute panel at the World Trade Organization (WTO) today.
The ruling demonstrates again how trade rules have been rigged to benefit multinational corporations and run counter to the interests of consumers who want more information about the food they purchase and farmer and ranchers who target local markets.
Knowing where your food comes from is an important right for consumers all over the world. This ruling is also a loss for farmers and ranchers who are selling to domestic, local markets and who want to build stronger connections with consumers. Trade rules should never get in the way of greater transparency in the marketplace. The USDA should not give in to the WTO on COOL in the short term, and should appeal the ruling. In the long term, we need to reform or throw out trade rules that undermine consumers and farmers.