Story and photos by Pete Shaw
Fair trade advocates scored a major victory earlier this year when Congress failed to hand over fast track authority on trade issues to President Obama. That triumph, which currently has quashed hopes of passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), was due to extensive and effective organizing on the part of groups such as the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign (ORFTC).
On June 19 the ORFTC held a forum to discuss the TPP and how it would affect consumer exposure to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The forum was not only important in reminding people that despite fast track not making it through Congress, the TPP is still being negotiated, but also for expanding opposition to its passage.
Despite over 20 years of trade accords such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that have been a disaster for working people, President Obama continues pushing for the TPP, hoping to bring it before Congress in November. TPP–often referred to as NAFTA on steroids–is being negotiated largely by corporate representatives; details of its contents have only appeared in public through material published by Wikileaks. Negotiations currently involve 11 other countries in the Pacific Rim, and if approved, would incorporate over 40% of world gross domestic product into a so-called free trade zone. Like previous free trade agreements (FTAs), the TPP has little to do with free trade, instead focusing on maximizing the profits of multinational corporations.
Those trade agreements also tend to run roughshod over hard-fought victories for environmental regulation. “The TPP would compromise laws we put in place to protect the environment: stopping illegal logging, dangerous extraction practices like fracking of liquefied natural gas (LNG), banning GMO production in our communities, and our current efforts on GMO labeling requirements that would let us know what is in the food we feed our families,” said ORFTC director Elizabeth Swager.
Corporate desire to dodge these laws are another example of the anti-democratic nature of FTAs and the contempt for democracy held by their designers and supporters. FTAs allow corporations to sue governments for the loss of future profits should countries craft legislation that limits corporate profit. As a result, the World Trade Organization–a body whose members are not elected by any country’s citizens, can determine–and have determined–that the laws of a country, including the United States, are interfering with corporate profits, and those profits are more important than the laws of sovereign countries.
In November, Oregonians will have the opportunity to decide if they get to know what is in the food they eat when they vote on a ballot initiative regarding that would require companies to label products that contain GMOs. Similar attempts have narrowly failed in California and Washington, although Vermont recently passed such labeling legislation. All attempts at regulation have been met with resistance from pesticide companies such as Monsanto, as well as “Big Ag” corporations like ABM and Cargill.
“Currently 99% of genetically modified organisms have been created by pesticide companies, mainly Monsanto, to resist weed killer products like RoundUp,” said Swager. “And of course, the increasing use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers has polluted streams, aquifers, and drinking water, with serious consequences for human health, animals, and the environment. Here in the US–right here in Oregon–companies like Monsanto are fighting on every front to defeat regulations or policies on food safety standards and consumers’ right to know how their food was produced and what is in it.”
It should come as no surprise that companies like Monsanto are pushing for passage of the TPP which Swager said would allow it “to break down regulations on food safety standards and consumer labeling by challenging them as international trade barriers.” In fact, the chief US negotiator for the TPP’s chapter on agriculture is a former lobbyist for Monsanto.
“The end goal for those Big Ag companies influencing TPP negotiations,” she continued, “is standardized rules. But not the best and safest standards, but ones that will commodify food the most by removing so-called barriers to trade such as the GMO labeling requirements that we are currently fighting for.”
Julia DeGraw of Food and Water Watch noted how passage of the TPP would harm the victories of those who believe agricultural practices in the US should “work for consumers and farmers, not ADM, Monsanto, and Cargill.” DeGraw, along with Rhett Lawrence of the Oregon Sierra Club, tied such victories, which include Jackson and Josephine counties passing laws outlawing the use of GMO crops, with other hard won fights, both in Oregon and outside of it, including banning fracking, not allowing LNG export terminals, and passing laws promoting sustainable logging and fishing practices. All these gains would be jeopardized because, as DeGraw stated, “Local decision making and local control will be lost if the TPP is allowed to pass.”
Had Congress passed fast track, it would have handed over its constitutionally mandated power and responsibility over trade issues to the president. Under fast track, trade legislation that comes before Congress can only be debated for a short time, and does not allow representatives to make amendments. Its passage would almost assuredly have resulted in passage of the TPP, and people’s ability to know what they are eating, how it was produced, where it came from, and what is in it, would be lost.
In November, Senator Ron Wyden, who has never met a trade agreement with which he has not fallen in love, plans to introduce it as Smart Track. Wyden, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, has pushed for greater transparency in trade negotiations. But he has yet to offer details of what will make his version of fast track different in regard to limiting congressional debate and forbidding amendments. Wyden’s voting record would seem to indicate he has no problem with the devastating impact of FTAs–it is a good bet that the differences will lie in the realm of propaganda and not substance.
In fact, when Madelyn Elder of the Communications Workers of America Local 7901 spoke before the forum, she noted that she had recently spoke to one of Wyden’s staff members about changing fast track. Elder said it needed to allow for amendments to trade agreements, but the staff member told Elder that was impossible because too many countries were involved. If Smart Track still requires an up or down vote on trade legislation, then any changes Wyden may make will prove a purely cosmetic exercise in propaganda.
The only way that this new version of fast track could be smart is if it allows the public to see what the US negotiators are proposing on the US public’s behalf in as close to real time as possible and allows for robust congressional debate and amendments to the TPP text. The last fast track bill that was introduced in January was quickly derailed because of community resistance, including people putting pressure on members of Congress to publicly oppose fast tracking the TPP.
“The work we do now will set the stage for our success in derailing fast track later this year,” Swager said. “Our representatives in the House and Senate hear from corporate lobbyists constantly back in DC. We need to make sure they are hearing from us. We need to continue upping the pressure on our elected officials.”
Want to get involved in stopping the TPP? Go to the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign’s website at: http://www.citizenstrade.org/ctc/oregon/