Food, Farmers and the TPP

Published: Sun 3 Jun 2012 06:59 PM
Food, Farmers and the TPP
by Andrea Brower
I write this as an American living in Aotearoa who is deeply concerned by the ‘trade’ deal being negotiated between our countries (or more correctly, between our countries corporations and their political cronies). On America’s side, Monsanto, Big Pharma, and Wall Street are attempting to manipulate New Zealand’s laws to eliminate anything that might get in the way of their expansion and bottom-line. On New Zealand’s side, Fonterra hopes for access to the US market. So they are endeavoring to devise a plan amongst themselves (and the elite of several other countries) to maximize their interests (profit, power, market consolidation) -- a plan brilliantly named with the most amiable of words, the ‘Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement’(hereafter referred to simply as the TPP).
I say ‘devise a plan amongst themselves’ without sounding like too much of a conspiracy theorist because there is really no other way to describe closed-door talks that include 600 corporate advisors and exclude journalists, civil society, and Members of US Congress / New Zealand Parliament. Participating countries have agreed that no background documents will be released until four years after the agreement comes into force, and since the US took control of the negotiations, the only pretense of transparency (a daylong ‘stakeholder’ programme) has been removed. Not only is the unprecedented secrecy surrounding the TPP fundamentally anti-democratic, but the agreement itself is attempting to establish corporations rights to skirt domestic courts and laws and sue governments directly (demanding taxpayer compensation for any domestic law they believe will diminish their ‘expected future profits’).
There is a lot to loose in the TPP -- control over land and resources, the tino rangatiratanga of Maori, affordable medicine, intellectual and cultural heritage, internet freedom, the ability to regulate the financial sector, tobacco laws... (check out and But lets start in this article with food and agriculture, since Fonterra’s bottom-line is the only justification I’ve heard for the deal on New Zealand’s side. There are three main points to be made about ag and the TPP: it’s bad for farmers and local food security, especially in less industrialized countries; it’s bad for New Zealand ag and food safety; and it’s not even good for Fonterra.
Strike 1: Death to farmers and local food economies
Free Trade Agreements (especially where the US is involved) have a vile history when it comes to the dispossession of small farmers, destruction of local food economies, and resulting rise in hunger and poverty. In the 10 years following the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), 1.3 million Mexican farmers went bankrupt because they were unable to compete with highly subsidized US corn entering the market. Mexican farmer Miguel Bravo eloquently describes how this has devastated rural communities: ‘There used to be one bus a day leaving this area (Chiapas) heading north. Now, four buses a day go to the border…. And each is packed with our young boys. Today, with the conditions the way they are, youth have become our biggest export’.
In the same 10 years, Mexico went from a country producing virtually all of its own corn to one importing nearly half of its staple food (in exchange, it exports cheap clothes and appliances made in maquiladora border sweatshops). Mexican consumers are paying a higher price for their (now GMO) tortillas, and it is no surprise that riots broke out when corn prices tripled in 2008. Mexicans, now dependent on the global market for food, go hungry when the gambling addictions of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Barclays Capital reach into the agricultural commodities market.
Of course, the effects of trade liberalization are by no means unique to Mexico, and as the international peasant movement Via Campesina has put it ‘free trade kills farmers’, and with them the local food economies that provide security to much of the world’s poor.
Perhaps closer to home, we might feel some solidarity with Chilean farmers who have been squeezed out of business and become laborers on export-oriented monocultures (or part of the new urban poor), thanks in large part to Fonterra’s investments in the dairy sector and anti-competitive price fixing.
In regards to the TPP, similar fates will befall farmers and local food economies especially in places like Vietnam and Peru, where significant numbers of people are dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. Around 37 million people within the TPP zone are involved in the agricultural sector, and in Vietnam 64% of the entire population depends on growing food. For these people, and all the people who eat what they produce, the TPP could be devastating.
Strike 2: New Zealand food and agriculture beyond Fonterra
The US has made it a clear priority to abolish New Zealand’s GE-labeling laws through the TPP, despite 83% of New Zealanders opposing such a move. What American delicacies might be coming soon to your plate, unbeknownst to you? ... Perhaps some corn genetically engineered to resist massive doses of the herbicide 2,4-D -- half the formula of Dow and Monsanto's Agent Orange, the stuff used by the US Army to defoliate jungles and destroy food crops during the Vietnam War. It’s estimated that Agent Orange killed about half a million Vietnamese, and led to another half a million children being born with birth defects. Google image it. But don’t worry, only a handful of Americans are known to have died from GE-foods, and our ‘innocent until proven guilty’ regulatory framework appears to be working just fine, at least according to the voluntary self-reporting of GE-corporations.
GE food labeling is only one of many food safety regulations that New Zealand may be forced to eliminate under the TPP agreement. The US Trade Representative recently issued a report of what it considers ‘unjust technical barriers to trade’, which included regulations around swine influenza, mad cow disease, avian influenza, maximum chemical residue levels, Ractopamine (a stock feed additive) and biotechnology. The message has basically been that no country should have the right to set standards stricter than the US.
This applies to quarantine issues as well. New Zealand is still free from many invasive plant and animal species that could potentially cause billions of dollars in damage to agriculture, human health and the environment. Consider New Zealand bees and the beekeeping industry, which have already been hard-hit by the Varroa mite, and could be devastated by European foulbrood, small hive beetle and Israel acute paralysis virus (all of which are present in Australia). The current strong quarantine standards are critical to protecting New Zealand’s many diverse agricultural industries, as well as the country’s long-term food security.
That the entire agricultural wealth of New Zealand may be made vulnerable by invoking the possibility of dairy industry profits becomes all the more absurd when we consider that the TPP could facilitate foreign ownership of this very industry. As Professor of Law Jane Kelsey writes, ‘The growing foreign ownership of corporate farms, the potential introduction of tradable shares in Fonterra, and the possibility of joint venture operations in New Zealand with agribusinesses like Nestle raise the prospect that foreign corporations may come to dominate New Zealand’s dairy industry’ (No Ordinary Deal, p. 20).
Strike 3: Even Fonterra won’t win!
Perhaps most ironically, even Fonterra (whether New Zealand or foreign owned) probably won’t get much out of the TPP. The US dairy lobby has already expressed strong opposition to ‘greater exploitation by New Zealand’, declaring that the only way to deal with Fonterra’s ‘virtual monopoly’ is through ‘full exclusion of all US-New Zealand dairy trade’. Similarly, the US Farm Bureau, which represents the interests of corporate agriculture, has urged trade negotiators not to revisit existing bilateral trade agreements, and concentrate instead on eroding other countries’ food safety and quarantine standards that ‘hamper US agricultural exports’. And you can bet that trade reps are doing exactly what the Farm Bureau instructs.
As Australia learned the hard way, little was gained for their ag export industries through a FTA with the US, and there is virtual consensus amongst US policy analysts and economists that New Zealand will not gain any meaningful concessions on dairy.
While the US agribusiness lobby’s hypocrisy is striking, this kind of chess playing is characteristic of Free Trade Agreements; all that remains to be seen is which corporate interests triumph, and we should remember that Fonterra is still a lot small than US agribusinesses.
The TPP may collapse on its own merely because the corporations driving it can’t find enough alignment in their interests. However, the impetus to give one more breath to the suffocating neoliberal project, as well as the US desire to assert its hegemony in a region increasingly influenced by China, may prove enough to push this through. So unfortunately, despite the obvious contradictions and horrors of the TPP, we still need to fight it.
I’ve heard it said often that there is ‘no long-term thinking’ on the part of New Zealand government, but let’s not be mistaken -- there is plenty of long-term thinking happening, it’s just taking this country in a radically different direction than most of its people want to go.
Andrea Brower is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at University of Auckland, with a particular interest in food, agriculture, the environment and social justice. She is from Hawaii. She can be contacted by emailing
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