NAFTA renegotiation threatens family farmers and the environment

NAFTA renegotiation threatens family farmers and the environment

Donald Trump’s effort to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement puts sustainable family farms and the environment at risk. Family farm groups from Mexico, Canada, and the United States have issued a joint statement, declaring that: “The Trump administration has stated its clear intention to continue its trend of putting multinational corporations’ narrow interests first by using the same blueprint that shaped the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).” As Food and Water Watch observes, “it’s clear the Trump agenda has morphed into something decidedly anti-rural…”

Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilber Ross has made clear that the TPP is the model for its NAFTA renegotiation agenda for chapters of the agreement intended to curb environmental, climate, and other important regulations. This is in line with Trump’s war on the Environmental Protection Agency and other administrative agencies, Trump’s simple-minded hostility to environmental and public health regulation subordinates the role of governments in ensuring economic fairness and environmental protection to corporate greed. Polluting industries are freed from responsibility for the costs they impose on people, communities, and the planet itself. (1)

Rally against Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump’s model for NAFTA renegotiation, Feb. 2016.

Dozens of powerful lobby groups for corporate agri-business ranging from the American Farm Bureau and the Corn Growers Association to DuPont Chemical have filed public comments with the U.S. Trade Representative’s office demanding a rollback of public interest regulations related to farm and food policy. Agribusiness giants want a new NAFTA that doubles down on chemical-intensive, polluting industrial agriculture. This would further ramp up their huge profits by promoting environmentally-hazardous pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, growth hormones and, genetically engineered seeds. It can be further expected that even more family farmers will be caught in unfair contracts with global pork and poultry giants who own the animals while the farmer absorbs the production costs and risks. Finally, it might be expected that corporate-controlled factory farms will seek to take control of water resources needed to sustain family farms and the planet.

Industry and Trump administration objectives for multiple chapters of a new NAFTA.

A new NAFTA on the TPP model would lead to less regulation of Big Ag’s environmentally harmful factory farming practices resulting in worse air and water pollution, inhumane treatment of animals, deforestation, and massive use of environmentally-hazardous pesticides, chemical fertilizers and fossil fuels. Corporate confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) would likely multiply further all across North America, at the additional expense of rural communities whose air and water would be further polluted and whose economies almost certainly would be further hollowed out. As a detailed analysis by Friends of the Earth documents, “Industrial agriculture relies on monocultures, large-scale energy-intensive operations and chemical inputs that are harmful to humans and the planet.”

For just a few examples of chapters in a new NAFTA deal that could fundamentally threaten sustainable agriculture, consider the chapters on technical barriers to trade, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, regulatory review, and enforcement chapters.

Renegotiation of a Technical Barriers to Trade — Plus chapter of NAFTA on the model of the TPP is likely to expand the legal basis for Big Ag to push for international suits before NAFTA trade tribunals challenging agrichemical and pesticide regulations in North America. As a result, the new NAFTA could force the rollback of effective chemical regulations in some U.S. states, such as California’s Green Chemistry initiative and preclude future, more effective regulation of dangerous agri-chemicals by Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. federal government. (1)

A TBT-plus chapter in a renegotiated NAFTA also could thwart efforts to stop the use of neonicotinoid (neonic) pesticides in order to save the bees and other pollinators that are essential in pollinating 75% of the food crops humans eat. A Big Ag challenge to regulation on insecticides, for example, would require the promulgating jurisdiction to meet a high burden of proof to show that it is not “discriminatory”, that it is “necessary,” and that it is the “least trade restrictive,” rather than the most effective means of regulation. NAFTA 2.0 promises international legal protection of the practices of Bayer, Syngenta, Monsanto and other global agrichemical giants.

Anti-neonic pesticides action at Bayer’s shareholder meeting, April 2016.

Trade associations like CropLife America are likely seeking to drive NAFTA renegotiations on chemicals and insecticides with the assistance of manufacturers like BASF, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta. Family farmers and the rural environment in the U.S. are already threatened by corporate control of genetically modified seeds and hazardous herbicides like Monsanto’s Roundup (glyphosate) and Dow’s Dicamba.

TBT-plus provisions in the new NAFTA could also further undercut food-labeling standards, thereby violating consumers’ right to know what is in their food and whether their food is produced in a manner protective of human health, animal welfare and the environmental.

SPS -Plus.
With respect to the chapter of NAFTA on sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures, Friends of the Earth U.S. is concerned that provisions in a renegotiated NAFTA could make it easier to challenge safeguards that fall into the categories of sanitary measures related to food safety and phyto-sanitary measures intended for animal and plant health. New biotechnology and GMO safeguards are also threatened. (2) In addition to that, a renegotiated NAFTA could give food exporters greater powers to challenge border inspections and substitute private food safety certifications for government inspections.

A new NAFTA regulatory review chapter.
A new regulatory review chapter in a new NAFTA deal would likely encourage business-friendly, cost-benefit analysis that would hamstring agricultural, food safety, and other environmental regulations. For example, insecticide safety standards would be lowered if the undervalued “benefit” of protecting the bees is outweighed by the “cost” to corporate profits. (3)

Quantifying in dollar terms the benefits of environmental regulation can be difficult, for example because the financial cost data of bee population declines may not be as comprehensively collected or easily measured as economic data. Worse, quantifying environmental benefits in monetary terms in order to compare them to economic costs to business, on its face, diminishes the perceived importance of maintaining the equilibrium of the eco-system. It can be challenging and sometimes impossible to attribute a price to the intrinsic value of living things and nature itself.

NAFTA dispute resolution enforcement.
Trump’s renegotiated NAFTA, like other recent “trade agreements,” mandates the rollback of public interest regulations and policies that have been established by democratic institutions. Unlike other international deals these so-called trade deals can be effectively enforced through a system of tribunal “arbitration” that can countermand the decisions of democratic government institutions at the national, state, and local levels and in other countries. International trade tribunals, largely employing corporate trade lawyers to serve as both plaintiff and judge in a revolving door fashion. These tribunals effectively enforce their decisions with retaliatory trade sanctions like punitive tariffs on a country’s exports or withdrawing international property rights like patent protections. In the case of investment tribunals, they can levy awards of unlimited money damages — sometimes in the billions of dollars. This can have the effect of both the withdrawal or weakening of government regulations and a chilling effect on the establishment of new regulations.

Petition delivery to end ISDS, a form of corporate-run international trade tribunals, Oct. 2017.

Small and sustainable farmers across North America are threatened

Under the current NAFTA deal, independent ranchers and farmers are already in economic distress due to declining prices for their products when they are sold to wealthy commodity speculators and the giant corporations that process and market the finished goods for export. At the same time, a new NAFTA deal on agriculture modeled on the TPP would further increase the volatility of agricultural markets and corporate control of agriculture at the expense of already declining rural communities, struggling small farmers, and the environment. The double-whammy of market volatility and declining prices, combined with deregulatory features of a new NAFTA, would harm each these three North American countries in varying ways:

Small farmers in Mexico are at risk
The existing NAFTA agreement has been devastating for small Mexican farmers. Mexico was flooded with cheap, subsidized U.S. corn and other commodities when the agreement went into effect. An estimated 2 million Mexicans farmers went out of business. In order to feed their families, many left for the United States to find any kind of job. Trump’s new NAFTA is undoubtedly intended to further ramp up U.S. exports of corn, other agricultural crops, and meat to Mexico. The consequence could be more economically-driven immigration across Mexico’s northern border.

Under Trump’s plan for a new NAFTA, necessary regulations would be reduced, allowing Big Ag’s products to be produced more cheaply. This allows agribusiness corporations to export at prices that do not fully reflect the cost of production and damage to the environment — which will certainly continue to devastate Mexican farming communities.(4)

Meanwhile, in the process of renegotiating NAFTA, U.S. biotechnology giants are further menacing traditional and environmentally sustainable Mexican farming practices. For example, NAFTA 2.0 threatens the traditional practice of saving and sharing of seeds by Mexican farmers. If based on TPP intellectual property chapter, a new NAFTA IP chapter would mandate that Mexico ratify the ironically-named International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, which provides 20 to 25 years of intellectual property protection for corporate breeders of any plant. As Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy notes: “Mexico is home to many ancient breeds of corn and tomatoes that are critical in adapting to climate change. Monsanto has long targeted Mexico’s intellectual property laws for seeds in order to sell genetically engineered corn in the country.”

Furthermore, as Dr. Steve Suppan at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has observed: “ [T]he U.S. Biotech Crops Alliance asked the U.S. Trade Representative to include a NAFTA 2.0 chapter on agricultural biotechnology.” This would likely protect and expand massive U.S. exports to Mexico of genetically engineered yellow corn, as well as open the door to the planting and consumption of GE white corn in Mexico. As Tim Wise, writing for a Tufts University publication notes: “Mexico’s industrialized white maize is the market Monsanto wants.Jaime Mijares Noriega, Monsanto’s Latin America Director for Corporate Affairs, was surprisingly frank. “In order for the penetration of biotechnology crops to be successful, it will have to be for both white and yellow corn,” he said. “If it was only yellow, we would not be investing.” Not surprisingly, as Dr. Suppan notes: “Some Mexican producer associations and social movements have called on the government to either exempt agriculture from NAFTA 2.0 or withdraw from the agreement altogether.”

Small farmers in Canada are at risk. 
Family-operated dairy and poultry farmers in Canada may well be put at an economic disadvantage. Canada’s supply management system for dairy, eggs and poultry is at severe risk. As Brent Patterson of the Council of Canadians explains: “a system of supply management came into effect in Canada to regulate the supply of dairy products. The national system, managed by the Canadian Dairy Commission, means that imports of these goods are limited in areas where domestic products can meet demand. The system means consistent prices for both producers and consumers.” Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy notes: “Poultry companies like Tyson and Pilgrims Pride want some of the gains won under the TPP that weakened Canada’s poultry supply management system to transfer to NAFTA.”

Dairy farm in Manitoba, Canada, May 2008. Image via Flickr Creative Commons.

Small farmers in the U.S. are also at risk.
As the U.S.-based National Family Farm Coalition has stated: “Trade deals like NAFTA thrive on commodity speculation that boosts corporate profits, while bankrupting family farmers, price gouging consumers, and destroying the environment.” Overproduction for export of agricultural goods by U.S. factory farms promises to depress the price that U.S. family farmers get for their product but not the high profit that corporations get for processing and marketing. This would drive more U.S. farming families off the land and undermine efforts to build a more environmentally sustainable agricultural economy in the United States.

Environmentalists must resist Trump’s NAFTA rewrite and the dangerous industrial food system that it promises to expand.

NAFTA has entrenched North America’s industrial food system, and Trump’s rewrite of NAFTA is likely to compound its dominance at an even more terrible cost. If Trump and giant agribusiness get their way, we can expect decreased regulation to lead to further depletion and degradation of the continent’s soil, water and biodiversity. The industrial agriculture model is highly dependent on the use of fossil fuels and CAFOs employing liquefied manure treatment systems that emit vast amounts of greenhouse gasses (5), thus a NAFTA renegotiation that encourages these practices through decreased regulations will worsen climate disruption. The health of farmworkers, farmers, and other vulnerable populations will further deteriorate. The wealth and power of global agribusiness corporations and investors will be compounded.

North America needs a totally different trade policy and agricultural system based on the principles of economic fairness and ecological agriculture. “Unveiling the hidden costs of mainstream agriculture. . . [shows] that investing in conversion to sustainable food and agriculture systems is a much cheaper option than current expenditures for environmental mitigation and public health,” says Nadia El-Hage Scialabba of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organizations. (6)

Environmentalists and family farm advocates in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico are sounding the alarm about these threats and are mobilizing in response to Trump’s renegotiated NAFTA. Now is the time to organize locally, talk to neighbors and the press, and forcefully communicate to Members of Congress.

Sidebar: The High Cost of the Industrial Food System

Farming for the Future: Organic and Agroecological Solutions to Feed the World, a groundbreaking Friends of the Earth report authored by Christopher D. Cook, Kari Hamerschlag, and Kendra Klein, PhD documents the high cost of the industrial food system.

Farming for the Future report documenting the high cost of the industrial food system.

“The dominant industrial food system … generates enormous social and public health costs. The political and economic structures underlying the global food system are consolidating wealth and power over food-related resources and accelerating world poverty and hunger. Meanwhile, overconsumption of unhealthy foods in some regions drives rising rates of chronic diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. A growing body of evidence links certain classes of agricultural pesticides to illnesses including cancers, neurodevelopmental disorders, reproductive disorders, asthma, birth defects and acute poisonings. These diseases disproportionately impact low income communities and people of color in the U.S. and around the world. Together, the global economic cost of premature death, disability and disease connected to food production and consumption is hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Evidence of industrial agriculture’s destructive path is everywhere:

  • Rapid depletion and degradation of soil and water resources.
  • Generation of major greenhouse gas emissions and significant vulnerability to climate change.
  • Widespread pesticide and fertilizer pollution of water ways and oceanic “dead zones” linked to fertilizer runoff.
  • Large-scale habitat and biodiversity losses threatening essential species, including pollinators.
  • Rapidly dwindling genetic diversity of seeds, crops and livestock breeds.
  • Severe animal suffering.
  • Impoverishment of farmers and agricultural workers worldwide.
  • Reduced effectiveness of antibiotics to fight human diseases.
  • Nearly 800 million people suffering from hunger, 1.9 billion overweight or obese, and billions spent on diet-related diseases.
  • Rapid loss and concentration of farmlands and water access due to land grabs and development.
  • Poverty wages for millions of agricultural and food industry workers who suffer high rates of injury and chronic illness.
  • Increased obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemics in some countries and pesticide-related diseases suffered disproportionately by farm workers and rural communities worldwide.”


Selected Endnotes

  1. Such cost shifting or spillover effects of market activity are what economists refer to as negative externalities resulting from deregulation or failure to regulate. People and the planet pay the social, economic, and environmental costs for regulated economic activity of a private company or individual speculator. .
  2. See DuPont’s Federal Register comments: “DuPont agrees that there are many aspects of NAFTA that can, and should be, modernized. We would support provisions that preserve or modernize the following areas: National Treatment/Market Access of Goods; Energy; Agriculture/Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards; Technical Barriers to Trade; and Biotechnology and Regulatory Cooperation. During the upcoming negotiations we should look for opportunities to improve regulation of crop protection chemicals. NAFTA has facilitated efficient risk assessments for new crop protection products by encouraging joint reviews of data by the appropriate regulatory agencies; we can build upon that progress. Common registration data requirements and data interpretation increase efficiencies and result in significant cost savings for companies, farmers, and customers. NAFTA also encourages identification of trade barriers, leading industry and regulator agencies to think beyond their own borders, facilitating Maximum Residue Level {MRL) alignment and harmonization among countries to the benefit of U.S. companies like DuPont.”
  3. See these Federal Register comments of the corporate oriented American Soybean Association, ASA LISTS BENCHMARKS IN COMMENTS ON NAFTA RENEGOTIATION June 13, 2017, “With regard to biotechnology, ASA urged USTR to pursue stronger language on sanitary and phytosanitary standards (SPS) geared toward enhancing cooperation between regulatory agencies and avoiding trade disruptions related to agricultural production technologies.”; See also, Federal Register comments of Beth Hughes, International Dairy Foods Association, Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS),
  4. As Sharon Anglin Treat, a senior lawyer and policy analyst at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy explains: “Corporate supporters of a new NAFTA are aiming to rewrite U.S. domestic policy to conform to a corporate wish-list that will hurt, not help, workers, consumers, and small-scale farmers. If they get their way, NAFTA 2.0 will prevent new regulations from being adopted and place roadblocks in the way of enforcing existing standards, reducing consumer and environmental protections to the lowest common denominator. This is a key demand of agribusiness, which objects to Trump’s talk of trade deficits and instead wants to see a beefed up regulatory chapter added to NAFTA. Known variously as “regulatory cooperation,” “regulatory convergence” or “good regulatory practices,” the idea of a cross-border process for reviewing and collaborating on regulations seems benign. In fact, regulatory cooperation provides a powerful toolkit to corporations to achieve through secretive international meetings the policies they are unable to enact in a more public and democratic domestic process. With tariffs on most agricultural products already extremely low or nonexistent, corporations have turned their attention to getting rid of domestic regulations that increase the cost of business or, like some food safety and pesticide regulations, can prevent export of noncompliant products altogether. Big agriculture sees the renegotiation of NAFTA as an opportunity to insert intrusive “modern” provisions into an older trade deal that currently lacks these enforceable deregulatory provisions.” Will Trump Use NAFTA To Institutionalize The Wholesale Delay And Repeal Of Public Protections?
  5. As a Tufts University Institute on Global Development and Environment report documents: “With the opening of the Mexican economy under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexican agriculture came under new competitive pressures from U.S. exports.” The U.S. appears to have exported subsidized agricultural goods to Mexico at prices below the cost of production, “one of the definitions of a violation of anti-dumping rules as defined by the World Trade Organization.” According to the Tufts report: “ We estimate “dumping margins” for eight agricultural goods — corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, cotton, beef, pork, and poultry — all of which are heavily supported (directly or indirectly) by the U.S. government… experienced dramatic increases in U.S. exports to Mexico after the agreement.”
  6. The National Association of Local Boards of Health reports that: “Globally, livestock operations are responsible for approximately 18% of greenhouse gas production and over 7% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (Massey & Ulmer, 2008). While carbon dioxide is often considered the primary greenhouse gas of concern, manure emits methane and nitrous oxide which are 23 and 300 times more potent as greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide, respectively. The EPA attributes manure management as the fourth leading source of nitrous oxide emissions and the fifth leading source of methane emissions (EPA, 2009). The type of manure storage system used contributes to the production of greenhouse gases. Many CAFOs store their excess manure in lagoons or pits, where they break down anaerobically (in the absence of oxygen), which exacerbates methane production.”
  7. Friends of the Earth, Farming for the Future: Organic and Agroecological Solutions to Feed the World, p.8,

Header image via DW News.

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