Free Traders to Food Consumers: Get Lost

Rick North Facebook

Regarding food - and virtually all our interests – “giant sucking sound” applies equally to our democratic rights being vacuumed up by corporations in free trade agreements. “Free” has proven to be very, very expensive.

If you thought you’d eaten your last forkful of mystery meat when you escaped from your high school cafeteria, think again.

On May 18, the WTO ruled that the U.S. law requiring meat packages to label country of origin was illegal, discriminating against meat companies from Canada and Mexico. In other words, profits of foreign corporations trump your right to know where your meat is coming from. So much for the 92% of American consumers who want country of origin food labeling, according to a 2014 Consumer Reports survey.

In a previous column, I cited several examples of President Obama’s less-than-truthful statements about Fast Track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). From his Nike speech, here’s yet another: “No trade agreement is going to force us to change our laws.”

Is that so?

The U.S. now has one of two options. The first, Obama notwithstanding, is to deep-six the labeling law. The second is to pay punitive tariffs to Canada and Mexico on a wide variety of products, including meat, wine, cherries and even mattresses. Either way, the big meat companies get their way, while consumers and smaller, more sustainable meat producers lose.

Congressional Republicans, who didn’t want consumers to have this information anyway, immediately jumped into action. “If Congress doesn’t act swiftly, retaliation will wreak havoc on the U.S. economy,” bemoaned Senate Agriculture Committee Pat Roberts. His counterpart in the House, Mike Conaway, took all of 48 hours to introduce legislation repealing the labeling law, which covered beef and pork. He even added poultry for good measure. His bill in the House Agriculture Committee passed 38-6, with the blessings of most Democrats.

This wasn’t the first time that a trade agreement rescinded a popular food labeling law. In 2012, the WTO also ruled against the voluntary labeling of “dolphin-safe” tuna. These labels, allowable for any company of any nation that protected dolphins while tuna fishing, made it possible for consumers to vote with their dollars, significantly lowering dolphin deaths.

For anyone following the TPP, does all this sound familiar? Actually, it’s even worse. With the WTO, corporations have to convince their governments to defend them. The TPP’s Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) tribunals eliminate the middleman by allowing multinational corporations to sue governments directly if any law potentially threatens their profits. The three arbiters are usually corporate lawyers, not a nation’s judges, and the decision is final – no appeals allowed. This is especially problematic for small, poor nations that can’t afford millions of dollars in legal fees.

But wait, there’s more. As I noted in a previous column, the Fast Track bill itself takes dead aim on GMO labeling. It’s an official negotiating objective to oppose “trade restrictions on commercial requirements, such as labeling, that affect new technologies, including biotechnology.” This, said Peter DeFazio,, is “the smoking gun . . . Proof that fast track and massive free trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are written by and for multinational corporations such as agriculture giant Monsanto.”

Jackson County’s ban on GMO crops? Japan, New Zealand and Australia’s GMO labeling laws? Peru’s 10-year moratorium on GMO’s? Fast Track has, shall we say, no appetite for such laws.

President Obama and pro-Fast Track/TPP leaders like Ron Wyden and Earl Blumenauer have insisted that they’ve corrected all the ills of the WTO, NAFTA and other previous trade agreements. This time is different, by God, and they’re going enforce the rules protecting food, labor, the environment, health and civil rights.

But in trade, Obama has never let pesky facts stand in the way of his opinions. As Elizabeth Warren’s staff thoroughly documented, he (and Bush and Clinton) channeled Proctor & Gamble with every major previous trade pact – New! Improved! – only to break their promises. According to the General Accounting Office, they’ve rarely enforced rules they’ve already set, failing to confront widespread child labor in Central America, murders of 105 union activists in Colombia and illegal logging in Peru.

And even if Obama does keep his promise this time, failure to enforce rules is only one aspect of this problem. With ISDS and the ascendancy of profits over justice, the rules ARE the problem. Instead of corporations promoting the well-being of society, society is now employed (at race-to-the-bottom wages) to serve corporations. The means has become the end.

In the second 1992 presidential debate, Ross Perot famously coined the phrase “giant sucking sound” to describe U.S. manufacturing jobs flooding to Mexico if NAFTA was passed. Of course, his words were right on target – in more ways than one.

Regarding food - and virtually all our interests – “giant sucking sound” applies equally to our democratic rights being vacuumed up by corporations in free trade agreements. “Free” has proven to be very, very expensive.

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