This year, the efforts of farmers, consumers, and fair trade activists to protest unfair trade policies have had dramatic results. In November, meetings held in Miami to negotiate the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) ended early, and in September, negotiations of the World Trade Organization (WTO), held in Cancun, broke down.
These developments may be a turning point in the struggle to protect our food system from corporate takeover. By refusing to compromise, the developing countries played David to the corporate Goliaths who dictate the trade agenda of the United States and European Union.
Far-reaching agricultural trade policies and low commodity prices are already battering farmers around the world. In just under a decade, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has driven millions of family farms to extinction. In recent years, prices for corn and soybeans in the United States have been lower than in 1978. Since 1994, close to 1 million Mexican farmers have been displaced, uprooting rural residents who then move to large cities and the United States looking for work.
The blame for low prices is often assigned to the subsidies given to U.S. farmers. Cheap U.S. grain unfairly floods other countries and destroys their rural economies. Therefore, the argument goes, getting rid of subsidies would make the price of grain rise. While the use of subsidies is hypocritical and clearly not in the spirit of free trade, the missing link in the debate is that corporations benefit from the subsidy system, not farmers.
When farmers are under economic stress from low prices, they do exactly what corporations want – they maintain or even increase production, sparking a downward price spiral. The first U.S. farm program in 1933 solved this by placing a floor under prices, buying crops in times of abundance to create a food security reserve, and establishing soil conservation programs to take land out of production. But since the 1996 Freedom to Farm Bill eliminated price floors under basic commodities, prices have been determined by traders at the Chicago Board of Trade and other exchanges. This law also eliminated the food security reserve and conservation set-asides, so every bushel produced must now be dumped on the market. Thus farmers have no choice but to plant “fencerow to fencerow.”
The elimination of price floors created an enormous amount of uncertainty in agricultural markets, uncertainty that has been addressed each year with billions of dollars of direct payments to farmers. In other words, eliminating price floors has simply allowed the giant food corporations to pay a very low price for farm commodities, while the U.S. taxpayer pays for subsidies to keep farmers afloat. In effect, consumers have financed the industrialization of our food system. It’s corporate welfare in disguise.
While the cheerleaders for free trade claim that their goal is “efficiency” that will somehow benefit us all, the sad truth is that free trade agriculture policies pit farmer against farmer, and put the interests of consumers at the bottom of the list. Because U.S. and WTO agricultural policies suit the interests of corporate agribusiness, they allow much of the cost of producing food to be imposed on others (through government subsidies to make up for low prices, environmental damage caused by intensive production practices, and low wages paid to farmers and food workers). Under such policies, large companies profit from a “cheap” food supply, while independent family farmers are forced off the land.
Farmers from around the world are organizing to preserve their food sovereignty: to control their own destiny when it comes to food production, farm policy and trade, rather than being rolled over by the corporate-driven WTO and free trade. They first called on the WTO to get out of agriculture, and now they are demanding the same from the FTAA.
Here in the United States, groups like the National Family Farm Coalition are calling for an end to the current subsidy system, restoration of a food security reserve, and a price floor that enables farmers to earn a fair return from the market, not the taxpayers. This is how we will achieve a food system that values family farm production, local food, a countryside with clean air and water, and the right of family farmers around the world to survive.
George Naylor is a family farmer in Churdan, Iowa. He is president of the National Family Farm Coalition, firstname.lastname@example.org. Wenonah Hauter is director of Public Citizen’s energy and environment program. She can be reached at email@example.com.