The congressional vote on Fast Track Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) has entered into a period of what appear to be rather convoluted twists and turns. Whether that path eventually leads to its approval—giving the President authority to negotiate trade deals in secret and then bring them to Congress for a yes or no vote, no amendments allowed—or to its defeat is simply impossible to predict at this point. The way this debate is playing out highlights several basic concerns, starting with transparency but extending to the content of the trade deals as well.
Fast Track is an extraordinary surrender of congressional authority to the President. It was first created during the Nixon administration, and has been granted for a total of only five years in the last two decades. It last expired in 2007. If approved, the current bill would cover the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and any other trade deal that could emerge in the next six years. Much of the focus in the media has been on TPP, since that agreement is closer to completion, but the proposed TPA is much broader than that, and extends into the completely unknown terrain of the next presidential administration.
Tomorrow, June 6, thousands of people from across the Great Lakes region will come together for the Tar Sands Resistance March in St. Paul, MN. This will be the largest action against tar sands to date in the region; speakers include Bill McKibben, Winona LaDuke, and Keith Ellison among others. Tar sand extraction and distribution is driven largely by trade policy set out in NAFTA. Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has been quoted as saying, “… a major tenet of NAFTA … the U.S. was guaranteed unfettered supply in exchange for unfettered access by Canadian exporters to its market.” The articles pertaining to energy and corporate rights found within NAFTA highlight the shortcomings of our current trade system. You don’t have to be an environmentalist to march against the tar sands. If you believe in fair trade, national sovereignty and human rights, you should attend this rally.
By Congressional Research Service estimates, the tar sands contribute 14% more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than conventional oil.1 The European Union places increased emissions from tar sands at 22% higher than conventional oil.2 Increased emissions are attributed to the extensive processing needed to convert the tar-like bitumen to oil.3 Mining of the tar sands has also lead to massive deforestation in the Alberta province. In terms of climate change and the environment, the tar sands represent a global catastrophe.
Rural communities are already being affected by a changing climate, and each community’s experiences and responses are unique. Because of the politically-charged nature of the term “climate change” it can be a difficult topic to discuss in rural communities, but addressing the impacts of extreme weather and a changing climate is necessary for community resilience. Last week, 18 residents of Itasca County, MN met for the second of three Rural Climate Dialogues across Minnesota. Few of the people in the room had met each other, but following brief introductions it was clear that they all shared a local sense of pride for the natural beauty of the northwoods and lakes – and concern for its future.
The Rural Climate Dialogues are a joint effort between the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Jefferson Center to engage rural communities in creating bottom-up solutions to climate change. The 3-day process, based on the Citizens Jury model, moves quickly in introducing participants to each other and establishing discussion ground rules to encourage open and productive conversations about controversial subjects. The goal of this gathering was for participants to better understand climate change impacts on Itasca County and create a set of recommendations for how the community can respond.
Over the first two days, participants heard from a wide range of speakers and local experts. First, Mark Seeley, University of Minnesota climatologist, provided a weather history specifically tailored to north central Minnesota. The power of this presentation came from the localized data, which demonstrated that climate change, which is often viewed as a global and distant problem, is already showing up in northern Minnesota.
The Obama Administration claims that the new round of secret trade deals will be the greenest ever. Its latest attempt to sell that story was released earlier this week in a slick new report titled “Standing Up For The Environment: Trade For A Greener World.” As with most of the spin coming from the U.S. Trade Representative these days – there’s a lot of “trust us” bluster in the report, marketed with unattributed numbers and fancy graphics. But, perhaps most notably, it ignores the largest environmental issue of our times – climate change – and the numerous concerns raised by environmental groups about how these trade deals will damage the climate, not protect it.
While the report touts new provisions on wildlife protection, animal trafficking and illegal logging, we’ll have to take the Administration’s word for it. The environmental chapters for the Trans Pacific Partnership (with 11 Pacific Rim countries) and the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (with Europe) are still secret documents. But there are good reasons for concern. A leaked version of the TPP environmental chapter posted on WikiLeaks last year was ripped open by U.S. green groups for not being “fully enforceable.”
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 is 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.
While it might seem obvious that the rights to water and food are inextricably linked, all too often policies around their use and governance are developed for one without regard to the other. To address this problem, the UN Committee on World Food Security formed a High Level Panel of Experts and charged it with weaving these two policy strands together. The resulting report provides a list of recommendations on the critical issue of Water for Food Security and Nutrition.
Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is the foremost international and intergovernmental platform trying to address global food security and nutrition challenges. Following the food crises of 2008, it initiated a reform process, increasing stakeholder participation, especially participation by those engaged in small scale food production systems. It also created a High-Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) mechanism to gain deeper understanding and ‘independent scientific knowledge based analysis and advice on issues related to food security and nutrition. Since its establishment HLPE has brought out nine reports. I was fortunate to serve on the most recent project team, which just completed its report on Water for Food Security and Nutrition (FSN). The launch of the report is this week.
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.
This past Friday, over 29,000 comments, including IATP’s review of the Guidelines, were submitted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines. The Guidelines, revised every five years, set policy guidance on the American diet and nutrition. They inform the design and implementation of federally funded nutrition programs such as the School Nutrition Program and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. Policy makers, educators and nutrition and health professionals use them.
According to Politico (subscription required), the last Scientific Report on the Dietary Guidelines (in 2010) elicited only 2,000 comments by comparison. This year’s report raised a firestorm—mainly due to the meat industry—because the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) peer-reviewed report recommended that “Sustainability” should be an integral criteria for an optimal diet. They defined a sustainable diet as a pattern of eating that promotes health and well-being and provides food security for the present population while sustaining human and natural resources for future generations and concluded the following:
A diet higher in plant-based foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds)and lower in animal-based foods is both healthier and more sustainable than the current American diet.