In a Feb. 24 BDN OpEd, Virginia Manuel, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development state director for Maine, stated that rural economies needed “trade promotion authority” in order to “compete on a level playing field” when it comes to international trade and export of U.S.-grown food and manufactured goods. As the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization have proven, this is pretty far from the facts on the ground — unless your idea of a level playing field is one that is dirty, polluted and economically ravaged.
The background for this discussion is the impending abdication of Congress of its constitutional authority to oversee all foreign trade deals. Trade Promotion Authority, also called Fast Track, would give President Barack Obama overarching authority to sign trade deals with little congressional oversight, something a constitutional scholar such as himself should know is not at all what our founders had in mind.
What does this mean for small farmers? We know about the devastation of the manufacturing base in the American Midwest after the above mentioned trade deals took effect. Companies scurried to move their plants to places with lower standards of living, loose or non-existent environmental protections and no history of organized labor protecting poorly paid workers. If this is what we want for our small family farms, then by all means let’s sign the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, both of which, like NAFTA and CAFTA, gut our own sovereign courts’ ability to defend our soil, water, air and workers from abusive lawsuits brought by multinational corporations. These lawsuits are not decided in a U.S. court of law but by an international tribunal composed of three judges looking only at the trade rules for their decision.
In a May 2013 article on food imports to the U.S., Public Citizen’s trade watchdog stated, “Smaller-scale U.S. family farms have been hardest hit by the import influx caused by deals like NAFTA and the WTO. About 170,000 small U.S. family farms have gone under since NAFTA and the WTO took effect, a 21 percent decrease in the total number. After the WTO required elimination of various U.S. price support and supply management policies, small farmers were also hard-pressed to survive the increasing year-to-year volatility in prices paid for commodities, making investment and planning more difficult than before the WTO.”
The National Family Farm Coalition is watching these trade deals closely and has reported on the Obama administration’s aggressive push for Fast Track trade authority.
Small farmers across the country are organizing to tell Congress that what may be good for big agribusiness firms is definitely not good for struggling, small family farms across the country. Here in Maine we are fortunate to have a young, vibrant group of farmers who are working to grow food, rebuild the local food infrastructure and feed the people of Maine. Their livelihood does not depend on exports, but they are subject to the same vagaries that affect small-scale farmers everywhere. If the market becomes flooded with cheap imported food of questionable quality, they may well find it impossible to compete and will leave the land, just as countless others have been forced to do from Iowa to Chiapas.
Again from Public Citizen, “U.S. corn exports to Mexico in the three years after NAFTA soared 377 percent above the level in the three years before the deal. In 2013, the United States exported 26 times as much corn to Mexico as before NAFTA. But when the flood of U.S. corn in Mexico caused corn prices to plummet 66 percent for Mexican farmers, 2.5 million farmers and agricultural workers in Mexico lost their livelihoods, many of whom resorted to migration. In NAFTA’s first seven years, the annual number of people emigrating from Mexico to the United States more than doubled.”
Talk about unintended consequences.
The same thing would happen to Maine growers as cheap and questionable “organic” food floods the market from China. We must protect our family farms and help them grow their businesses to keep the rural economy growing and supporting all the people who live and work in towns and villages across the state and the nation.
Betsy Garrold is the president of the board of directors for Food for Maine’s Future. She monitors the Maine Citizen Trade Policy Commission for that organization. She also serves on the executive committee for the National Family Farm Coalition and lobbies in Augusta for the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. She can be reached at email@example.com or 568-3302.