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.
About 200 people gathered in Lafayette Square outside of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in D.C. on Wednesday to profess loudly and clearly that our democracy is not for sale. Public Citizen organized the rally to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Citizens United ruling; and despite the cold and the snow, a lineup of lively speakers and talented musicians ensured that the crowd remained in high spirits. The speakers shared both statistics and personal stories about how the political power afforded to big corporations is undermining our quality of life.
Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison was the featured speaker from Congress. Mid-way through his speech, after a roll call and verbal appreciation for the diversity of issues represented at the rally, he said:
“I was going around asking folks what’s the biggest problem confronting our country? People said, ‘It’s climate change!’- that’s a good one, that’s a serious problem. They said, ‘It’s wage stagnation!’- and that’s a serious problem. Some said, ‘The right to organize!’- and they also have a very good point to make. Or maybe it’s pay equality for women. Big deal, right? But if we cannot let our voice shine through our democratic institutions because they’ve been taken over by big money corporations, then none of these very important issues will be able to come through. Which, in my mind, makes reclaiming democracy, the issue.” [Resounding applause and cheers from the crowd.]
Across the board, regardless of our priorities in our respective organizations, all our issues are affected by the unprecedented ability of corporations to spend millions to influence government.
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.”
What does it mean to participate in a democracy? Does the answer change when it comes to the food system? After all, as IATP’s latest report, Deepening Food Democracy, illustrates, for every corporate lobbyist exercising control in Washington, there is a food movement participant changing the food landscape in their local community.
This past November was in many ways a typical one for American politics—although the turnout rate of just 36 percent of eligible voters was a low not reached since 1942, it was only five points lower than the 2010 midterm elections, and totally in line with the fact that the last time at least half of eligible Americans went to the polls outside of a presidential election year was literally 100 years ago: 50.4 percent in 1914. Happy 100th b-day, minimally adequate participation in American democracy!
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.
One of the big sticking points in the TTIP talks has been the EU’s prohibition on imports of beef treated with growth hormones. EU officials continue to insist the issue is off the table, but U.S. officials keep pushing it right back on. Just this week, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told reporters at Politico that EU restrictions on hormone beef (and GMOs) were problem areas in the trade talks. “We should be given an equal opportunity to make the case [for U.S. farm products],” Vilsack said. “It may very well be that European consumers decide not to buy product from the United States, but they ought to be given the choice.”
Well, in fact they are given the choice, at least in the case of hormones. According to a new report by Vilsack’s own Department of Agriculture, U.S. sales to Europe of beef raised without hormones have increased substantially over the last few years. It’s an interesting story of a trade dispute spurring new, and apparently profitable, changes in production.
The EU has banned the use of growth-promoting hormones in beef since 1989 over concerns about the safety for human health. The U.S. and Canada won a WTO challenge to that decision at the WTO, winning the right to impose retaliatory tariffs on EU farm goods. In the meantime, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service began a Non-Hormone Treated Cattle Program, which certifies U.S. beef for export to the EU.
IATP’s commitment to take on the big issues and important fights was what first drew me to the organization many years ago. Now, as IATP’s president, I’m honored to continue that commitment. And in 2015, we are taking on big agribusiness and fighting for the kind of food and farm systems we want—now and for our children and grandchildren. 2015 is a pivotal year for many of the issues we’ve been working on for nearly 30 years, and we need your support.
In 2015, IATP will ramp up its work with allies to oppose two of the largest free trade agreements in history, TTIP and TPP, that are being negotiated in secret and Fast Track, which are projected to come to Congress in 2015. We are also working closely with European partners opposing these trade deals that put corporate interests above those of consumers, farmers, the environment and democracy.
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: