The Stealth Trade Agreement That Could Super-Size Industrial Agriculture

The “finish line is in sight” for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would likely send a generation of forward-thinking agrarian reform straight down the drain.
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The “finish line is in sight” for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would likely send a generation of forward-thinking agrarian reform straight down the drain.
(Photo: perspectivestock/Shutterstock)

(Photo: perspectivestock/Shutterstock)

In the waning days of his presidential tenure George W. Bush opened negotiations with 12 nations, most of them from the Pacific Rim, over an expansive trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Very few people at the time took notice.

Since then, episodic talks have occurred in relative secrecy (it’s often characterized as “the largest trade agreement you’ve never heard of”), with occasional WikiLeaks piquing media curiosity. But TPP crept out of hiding last month when, facing a freshly Republicanized congress, Obama gave it a favorable nod in his State of the Union address. A few days later, the New Zealand trade minister Tim Groser told the Washington Post that “The finish line is in sight.”

As with any global trade agreement, there will be winners and losers. The 600 United States corporations with representatives involved in TPP negotiations suggest that the outcome will please Wall Street. Conversely, as Robert Reich explains, “the largest trade deal in history” could “be a disaster” for American wage earners and middle-class consumers, as the agreement would almost certainly weaken domestic regulatory mechanisms bearing on the environment, working conditions, and product safety.

Local options will revert to a status that reformers have been working for two decades to transcend: they will become nothing more than expensive, value-added options for the elite. It’s economics.

Economic modeling by the Brookings Institute shows that the U.S. could benefit to the tune of $14 billion in added trade revenue by 2025. The pharmaceutical industry, energy companies, and those banks too big to fail are frequently highlighted as the likeliest beneficiaries. Critics of PPT have lamented how “NAFTA on steroids” will empower these sectors without protecting consumers from the deregulatory fallout. But very few of them have fully appreciated something that directly touches every one of us: the impact that the trade agreement could have on U.S agribusiness.

That must change. TPP’s impact on Big Ag—an unmitigated boon—could send a generation of agrarian reform down the drain. As the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy puts it, TTP “undermines local control of food.” And as one TPP report to its members explained, the role of TPP is to “reduce regional divergence.”

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Over the past 20 or so years American consumers have become increasingly opposed to an industrial food system that fabricates cheap and calorically dense junk food with zero regard for the harmful externalities. Voting with their forks, they’ve clamored for alternatives that are healthier, sustainably produced, non-industrial, local, organic, non-genetically modified, humane, antibiotic-free—whatever. While the rhetoric driving this quest can seem pretentious and overstated, it has nonetheless fostered a meaningful transition to a more conscious way of eating, one that takes seriously the impact of our diet on human and environmental health.

To a measurable extent, agriculture in the U.S. has shifted to accommodate this emerging grassroots demand. Between 1994 and 2014, for example, the number of farmers’ markets in the country grew from 1,755 to 8,268. Over the past decade, the number of small farms in the U.S. increased for the first time since the 1920s. Consumer demand for organic food has seen a double-digit increase almost every year since the 1990s. Between 1997 and 2007, farms selling locally grown produce directly to the consumer spiked by 24 percent. Critical to this transition away from the corporate modal has been sustainable agriculture’s ability to become increasingly price competitive with its industrialized counterparts.

But TPP could squash that progress. If industrial producers gain access to unimaginably vast markets encompassing over 800 million people, they could give new meaning to Big Ag. Countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam, with their growing middle classes, would become an exciting new stomping ground for American agribusiness eager to export the standard American diet. This holds especially true for the meat industry (the most polluting segment of U.S. agribusiness), with rates of beef and pork consumption dropping steadily in the U.S. since 2007.

In light of this declining consumption, small producers offering niche-oriented, localized, less-industrialized options have enjoyed an improved chance of capturing U.S. market share. But if industrial producers successfully tap foreign markets opened by TPP, the small guys will surely lose the modest footing they have fought so hard to gain. Big Ag will ramp up production of corn, soy, and animal products to such an extent that prices will drop and profits will increasingly accrue on the margins. Local options will subsequently revert to a status that reformers have been working for two decades to transcend: they will become nothing more than expensive, value-added options for the elite.

To a measurable extent, agriculture in the U.S. has shifted to accommodate this emerging grassroots demand. Between 1994 and 2014, for example, the number of farmers’ markets in the country grew from 1,755 to 8,268.

So it is no surprise that the U.S. pork industry, for one, has gone hog wild over the prospect of new markets. As the National Pork Producing Council’s president, Howard Hill, explained: “The U.S. pork industry is the poster child for expanded trade. ... The U.S. is ready to finalize an agreement that expands U.S. trade and generates U.S. jobs.” Ditto for the beef guys, who are eager to gain access to Japan, a country that has traditionally maintained an aggressive protective tariff against U.S. beef. A lot of corporate mouths, in other words, are watering.

Agribusiness will gain more than just new market share under TPP. TPP will also potentially render moot a wide range of domestic regulations that, while giving Big Ag a headache, generate immense interest in local food control.

Take labeling initiatives. Comprehensive anti-GMO labeling laws exist in Japan, New Zealand, and Australia (and are under intense discussion in Peru and, to a lesser extent, the U.S.). According to TPP logic, such labeling could viably be interpreted as a trade barrier and, as such, overruled. It was through a similar interpretation that the European Union, after a challenge by the U.S., was forced to undo its ban on GMO imports under WTO rules.

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Food reformers would be well advised to drop everything they’re doing and seek to scuttle this stealth trade agreement from the inside out. Decades of agrarian reform have sown vast acreages of overheated rhetoric, but it has also reaped acute awareness among a vocal minority of Americans who rightly insist we must exercise greater control of the food we eat. Without action, without agitation, the move by agribusiness to introduce the worst of our food system to hundreds of millions of consumers who have been mercifully spared the junk we excel at producing on the cheap will otherwise render all food reform efforts largely irrelevant.

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