The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that our global food system is vulnerable to collapse and is subject to exploitation.
Look no further than the vegetable and fruit farmers in EuropeAnd the United StatesCorporate food processors were unable to adapt to changing consumer demands and destroyed perfectly good produce. The 2.5 million U.S. farmworkers also risked the lives of their families to earn poverty-level wages and no personal protective equipment.
Globally, only four corporations control the situation. 75 percent of the world’s grain tradeAnd 60 percent of our seeds. Four firms dominate the U.S. market 75 percent of the fertilizer supplyAnd 85 percent of beef processing.
This concentration reduces farmers’ freedom and takes away their ability to negotiate the price of what they sell and the inputs they purchase, such as seed and feed. Workers are forced to work for subsistence wages and lack critical safety protections.
This is the food and farming system that the World Trade Organization played a key role in creating. The Uruguay R.oundNegotiations of the General AgreementOnTariffs and Trade in 1994, has become synonymous with promoting “free trade,” namely, in calling on states to privatize public enterprises, end price and wage supports, and lift import tariffs not only in agriculture but also in the pharmaceutical, automobile and textile industries.
Food, farm and peasant movements are specifically represented in the international coalition La Via Campesina plan to protestThe meeting was to demand change and denounce free trade policies.
LVC members have been challenging the WTO for many years. The most well-known is Lee Kyung Hae, a Korean farmer who died by suicide at the organization’s meeting in Cancún, Mexico, in 2003, to call attention to how WTO prescriptions drove farmers into poverty.
These conditions of economic depression persist worldwide: 30Indian farmers are taking their own lives every day because they can’t pay their loans or buy inputs. The same has been true for U.S. farmers. one of the highest suicide ratesAll professions
The WTO’s role in creating these dynamics is showcased in the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA)The 1995 entry into force of the AoA. The AoA put agriculture into an economic bind, categorizing farm system policies globally into three boxes — amber, blue and green.
Amber box policies, specifically, are prohibited under the AoA for being “market distorting.” Such initiatives include the government purchase of commodities to guarantee a certain income. Import tariffs are also included in this category. Incomes can also be affected by blue-box policies, which are allowed under the agreement. Direct payments from the government to farmers are one example of direct payments in the United States. Because they are limited in amount, blue box policies can be allowed. The last kind of policies — those in the green box — are also allowed. These funds can be used for research and development, or conservation.
As a treaty, the AoA has enforcement mechanisms: Through the WTO’s dispute settlement mechanism (DSM), states that feel another country has unfairly restrained trade may file a grievance and seek retribution.
One case that is well-known is the U.S.’s successful effortMexico to lift its tariffs on high sugar corn syrup. rise of obesitysouth of the border. Canadian dairy farmers suffered similar harm as the government of Canada. forced by the WTO — under the pressure of powerful corporate dairy interests from the U.S. — to remove export supports and allow foreign firms access to domestic markets. Another example was when Brazil claimed that U.S. subsidy had adversely affected it cotton industry. Many years of negotiations led to a victory for the Latin American nation, with the U.S. agreeing to pay $300 million to Brazilian producers.
The WTO’s free trade promotion, while increasing imports and exports, has not helped small-scale producers. Public Citizen reports that since the mid-1990s, when the WTO and the North American Free Trade Agreement were in effect, more than 231,000 family farms have been forced to close their doors because they couldn’t compete with price volatility and deregulation. This represented approximately 11 percent of all U.S. farms between 1995 and 2017.
These global rules are still beneficial to wealthy countries in a large way. For example, the U.S. can quickly rescue its farmers from disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic. 40 percent of farmers’ total income2020. Countries with limited resources don’t have the means to pay farmers when crisis hits, or to pay fines in case of violating WTO dictates.
Agribusiness companies also often export or import goods in the name of free trading. dumpForeign markets can import food at lower prices than those produced in the country. This causes overproduction in rich countries like the U.S. that is environmentally harmful and forces farmers out of business abroad.
Despite these deeply entrenched problems, this WTO meeting could be different, as protesters’ demands for significant food and farm system reform are taking on increased urgency.
This is partly why movements have taken advantage this opportunity to call on change. The WTO has been weakened in recent years, and the DSM has lacked staff since. former President Donald TrumpAs part of the China trade war, he hindered the WTO by appointing no judges to hear grievances.
There’s also the fact that negotiations, particularly concerning further liberalizing agriculture, have been stalled since 2001As economically developing countries like Brazil and South Africa, they have not been able to find common ground between the U.S.A. and Europe.
This context suggests that there are alternatives to the WTO vision and enforcement mechanism for DSM. demand for parity — the New Deal-era set of policies that sought to place farmers’ incomes on par with what workers in urban areas receive. Organizations like the National Family Farm Coalition, which defy the WTO’s boxes, see parity policies merely as a way of curtailing poverty. corporate consolidationAnd protect the environment. The central element of this demand is that governments provide space for farmers and workers to negotiate long-term, sustainable food production and distribution.
LVC also promotes agroecology — a labor-intensive, chemical-free way of growing food that works with nature instead of trying to dominate it. This type of farming is possible only if governments around the world adopt land redistribution policies and provide significant income support to farmers to keep them in the profession.
The WTO is weakening, so now is the right time to denounce free trading and demand food and farm system reform. Lee Kyung Hae died in this fight more than 15 years ago. Farmers and activists will gather in Geneva to remember his sacrifice and keep the hope alive for a more just, equitable, and sustainable way to practice agriculture.