April 2015: Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

By Amy Johnson, Fundraising and Climate Change Intern 

For the last 30 years, The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has been working, “locally and globally at the intersection of policy and practice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems.” Originally an outgrowth of the family farm movement, one of the issues that IATP’s works on is local and international trade agreements that impact family farmers at home and around the world.

Born out of the need for transparency in global trade, Trade Secrets is a collaboration between IATP and ARC (Agricultural and Rural Convention) 2020, a network of European organizations working to better agricultural systems and trade policies. Trade Secrets is an online series that spotlights the way in which international trade agreements influence corporate activities, laws, and policies throughout the world. These laws and policies, in turn, affect climate and all aspects of our food systems, sometimes trumping local policies. Trade Secrets brings to light how these trade agreements frame our everyday lives, from our food options to the labor laws that protect us.

I spoke with Karen Hansen-Kuhn and Pete Huff at IATP to ask what trade agreements we should be watching out for. They pointed out two huge agreements currently being negotiated: the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). These agreements are broad in scope and have been negotiated mostly “behind closed doors,” heavily influenced by the multinational corporations that would benefit the most. The negotiation processes for the TPP and the TTIP have been highly secretive and excluded members of Congress, the media and civil society – predominantly at the request of the Obama Administration.  As a result, what little is known on the content of the TPP and TTIP is through leaked text – is it likely that both agreements will offer meager protections for the farmers, ranchers, fisherfolk and rural communities who are the corner stones of our food systems. Previous trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and the U.S.-South Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS) have failed to deliver for farms and food systems in the U.S. and abroad – resulting in the loss of jobs and economic stability.

The TPP is slated to complete its negotiation process in 2015 and focuses on expanding market access between the U.S. and 11 Pacific-rim nations, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the global GDP. Considered “NAFTA on steroids,” the TPP focuses on lowering tariffs and regulations, thus opening up market access to economies and natural resources while simultaneously eroding efforts such as Country of Origin Labelling (COOL), GMO labeling, food safety protections, etc.. This will allow corporations to move production where it is most profitable, thus undermining local economies and food systems in the process.

The TTIP, which is slated to complete negotiations in 2016, will synthesize the European Union’s and the United States’ existing regulations, such as labor laws and protections for health and the environment. Unfortunately, it is expected to minimize these regulations in order to impose the least restrictions to corporations. It will set new low standards for the rest of the world to follow and affect people’s access to medication, internet privacy, and overall health and safety.

If passed, these two trade agreements could change the way future global trade operates for decades, allowing multinational corporations to capitalize on the exploitation of people and the environment. While the two agreements have essentially different parameters, they would both give the upper hand to corporations, regardless of how it undermines the local economy and food systems. An example of this is the mechanisms known as “investor-state dispute settlements (ISDS).” ISDS are special private courts that would allow corporations to sue federal and state governments over regulations that undermine their expected profits, e.g. forcing the Mexican government to pay $169 million in compensation over its prohibition on High Fructose Corn Syrup, or Phillip Morris suing Australia over plain cigarette packaging.

In addition to the harmful nature of these trade agreements, they are being negotiated under clandestine circumstances. The Obama Administration is seeking to pass these policy agreements through Congress by way of the trade promotion authority, otherwise known as “fast track.”  Fast track allows the administration the power to negotiate the agreements privately, without public or Congressional oversight or input. Congress will then only be allowed an up or down vote, with limited time for review and no possibility for amendment.

In order to demystify the impact of the TPP and TTIP on our everyday lives, I asked Karen how these two trade agreements would affect our local food systems. She believes the impact will be powerful, “So many of the gains in local food systems are innovative and fragile. These rules would make it harder to raise standards without being overridden by the trade rules or the corporate courts. They would also make it harder to build in local preferences for farm to hospital or other farm to cafeteria programs. And there is the issue of democracy. Who decides on a local ban on neonics, for example, or if a university can set special procurement preferences to create local jobs?  We think that these decisions should be made as close to the people who grow and eat the food as possible – with their participation and consent.

Pete also noted that, “The TTIP is also particularly threatening to local procurement.  The European Union is explicitly targeting “localization” barriers to trade, such as preferences for city and state government to prioritize local products in their purchasing.  If included in TTIP, such an attack on “buy local” efforts would have rippling effects through efforts to rebuild regional economies by exposing them to litigation as trade barriers.”

Despite the highly undemocratic nature of these trade agreements and how they are being passed, there are some things we can do to about it. At this moment, the top priority is to halt trade promotion authority or “fast track.” Karen explained, “With authorizing legislation likely to be introduced this week, now is the time for all groups connected to farming and food in the U.S. to come together to oppose fast track as hugely undemocratic and detrimental to local food system and family farms/ranches.  And what’s bad for family farms and ranches is bad for the people that enjoy their food.  This affects everyone!”

Pete noted that the best way to go about stopping fast track is to contact your Congress member and tell them to vote “no” on fast track.  Then spread the word and get others to contact their members of Congress.  You can also visit the Trade Secrets website to learn more and contact IATP and other groups working on this (i.e. National Family Farm Coalition, Rural Coalition, National Farmers Union, Food and Water Watch, Citizens Trade Campaign, Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen, etc.) with any questions or ideas.

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