Agriculture & food

Bilateral free trade and investment agreements seriously impact the lives of farmers, and consumers of food. With World Trade Organization (WTO) talks on agriculture now at a virtual standstill, bilateral and regional free trade negotiations are increasingly being used to further liberalize farming sectors, or in the hope of gaining access to new markets for agricultural exports.

Agribusiness lobbies have been generally critical of the tendency of bilateral FTAs to exclude sensitive food and agricultural products. Now, FTAs are often used to try to force open markets for agricultural products which have been exempted in previous trade negotiations, and to also target non-tariff barriers like product standards which relate to food.

Not only do many FTAs include sections on agriculture, but, like the WTO, they often include provisions or chapters on sanitary and phytosanitary standards (SPS) and technical barriers to trade (TBT) which constrain the power of local communities and national governments to set their own standards in relation to biosafety, food safety and other health concerns. Meanwhile the power and control of transnational agribusiness corporations over seeds and biodiversity is advanced through WTO-plus intellectual property provisions (see the Intellectual Property Rights section), through investment liberalization provisions which facilitate corporate/overseas investor takeovers of land and domestic food production (see Investment) .

The free trade agenda in agriculture has been set by and for corporate agribusiness. Small farmers all over the world are reeling as tariffs are slashed and subsidies and price controls, if they ever existed, are cut. Meanwhile subsidized US and EU farm goods are able to flood local markets and undercut what can be locally produced. It is not surprising that Korean farmers have been at the forefront of the mobilizations against the Korea-Chile FTA, the WTO and the US-Korea FTA nor that campesinos in Mexico, Central and South America have mobilized against the WTO, NAFTA, CAFTA, the FTAA and various bilateral free trade agreements.

Mexican campesinos’ experience of NAFTA afternearly two decades leaves them with no illusions as to the promises about free trade in agriculture, and they have been at the forefront of resistance to this agreement. Since NAFTA, floods of cheap, subsidized, and often genetically-modified U.S. corn have entered Mexico, sold at prices below the cost of production, with which campesinos cannot compete. This has led to massive displacement, poverty and hunger, pushing people into the cities and maquiladoras (sweatshop factories), and forcing many to risk their lives crossing the increasingly militarized border into the USA in search of work.

While the US and EU demand that others open their markets up to US and European goods, services and investment, their position on agriculture in bilateral free trade agreements has fuelled criticism that Washington and Brussels say one thing about free trade, but practices another.

For example, the US sugar industry successfully lobbied so that US trade negotiators excluded sugar from the FTA Agreement with Australia, the world’s fourth largest sugar producing nation. The US refusal to open up its market to Australian sugar imports once again called into question Washington’s double standards as it demands liberalization from other countries but maintains protection for its corporate farmers. Likewise, in both the Australia FTA and in other FTAs with agricultural exporting countries, the US has made minimal concessions when it comes to reducing tariffs on agricultural imports (like meat and dairy, in the Australian case).

Agriculture has been controversial in other bilateral free trade agreements. Korean farmers led sustained opposition to the FTAs which Seoul signed with Chile and the US, concerned about the impact of floods of cheaper farm imports on their livelihoods (in the latter, Washington insisted on Korea agreeing to completely free trade in rice). Following the 2003 FTA with China, in which tariffs were removed from a significant number of fruit and vegetables from China, causing a flood of cheaper imports into Thailand, Thai farmers and others have questioned the sense of agricultural liberalization through FTAs when they face being displaced and their livelihoods destroyed by such deals.

Governments renounce their right to control food exports and imports when they sign FTAs with the USA and the EU. This is also spurring resistance. For example, mass mobilizations in South Korea brought safe food concerns to the streets in opposition to the resumption of US beef imports in conformity with the US-Korea FTA. Via Campesina, a global peasant and small farmers’ movement, has mobilized against the corporate takeover of agriculture, biotechnology, the WTO and other free trade agreements, and in support of food sovereignty. Each country, it argues, should have the right to define its own agricultural policies in order to meet its domestic needs.

This should include the right to prohibit imports to protect domestic production and genuine agrarian reform to provide peasants and small/medium-sized producers with access to land. At its fifth international conference in Maputo, Mozambique in November 2008, Via Campesina committed to redouble its struggle against FTAs and EPAs, after earlier calling for the removal of all negotiation in the areas of food production and marketing from the WTO and from all regional and bilateral agreements.

last update: May 2012

Photo: La Via Campesina South Asia

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