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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

How Trade Policy Impacts What We Eat

from the March 2, 2022 Bulletin

unions social movements economy & economic reform agriculture practices & policy

Karen Hansen-Kuhn, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policys program director, is working worldwide to help create fair food and farming systems. Her experience includes bringing together social movement activists from over 20 countries to develop alternative trade policy proposals. Uniting farmers and consumers from the Global North and South around a different approach to international agriculture, she believes, will be one prime key to averting environmental and climate disaster.

Indigenous people in today’s México have been pushed off their land several times since the Spanish colonizers arrived. What have been the latest tools of “conquest”?


We can trace the latest set of tools to the “Structural Adjustment Programs” — the SAPs — of the late 1980s and early 1990s, years when the International Monetary Fund was forcing weaker countries of the Global South to open themselves to agricultural imports. The IMF gave the familiar excuse that the West needed to “modernize” agriculture, that agriculture amounted to a “backward” sector.


NAFTA would soon be proposed to expand the SAP concept. The only silver lining: This provided a good opportunity for activists from rich and poor countries to connect and fight together. Remember that NAFTA only passed in a very close vote. The pressure from below became quite effective.


How did NAFTA affect Mexican farmers?


Let’s start with corn, much more than a staple food. Because of its central place in every household for millennia, corn has cultural and spiritual significance, as a symbol of México. But after NAFTA, corn imports from the US grew by 400 percent. Mexican corn farmers couldn’t compete. Two million farmers were driven off their land, and another two or three million became contract farmers to the mushrooming agribusinesses owned by transnational corporations.


Did corn imports have other effects?


One major impact: The imports changed how people eat. As former farmers moved into jobs with long work hours and little pay, investments in and imports of cheap processed foods shot up. Obesity rates increased, as well as rates of diabetes and heart disease. At the same time, fresh fruit and vegetable exports — avocados, limes, tomatoes, peppers — almost doubled in the ’90s. With most of the imported corn feed corn, industrial meat production increased on both sides of the border, with just a few corporations dominating the food system throughout North America.


But the changes in agriculture didn’t go without response. Farmer organizing has been strong. In the “Without Corn No Country” campaign, a coalition of savvy farm organizations demanded, among other things, that NAFTA be renegotiated. The USMCA that succeeded NAFTA did include some improvements, especially for labor, but the agreement’s agricultural chapter still promotes a failed model of industrial agriculture.


The “other things” that Mexican farmers demanded now stand at the forefront of the international food justice movement, right?

Mexican campaigners demanded a ban on GMO corn. GMOs cause a reduction in plant diversity, because agricultural trade policy prevents farmers from exchanging seeds, forcing them to buy from corporate sources. And the main reason we have GMO corn and cotton in México? These GMO varieties resist glyphosate — Roundup — an herbicide that the World Health Organization has deemed a probable carcinogen.

Farmers and their allies began calling for a ban on glyphosate a decade ago. They mounted a sophisticated campaign that brought social movement pressure on lawmakers and the courts. After the 2018 elections in México, farmers found a more receptive audience in the new Morena administration. The AMLO government banned GMO-corn planting in México and began phasing out imports of both GMO corn and glyphosate. These new policies open the door to alternatives better for people, biodiversity, and the environment.

What agricultural initiatives would ensure healthier foods and greater economic security for farmers?


Victor Suarez, now the undersecretary of agriculture, is leading the Mexican government’s initiative for food self-sufficiency and, really, food sovereignty. He founded the National Association of Rural Commercialization Enterprises in 1995, to give market access to small- and medium-sized farms. ANEC promotes a “dialogue of knowledges” model. For example, ANEC brought together soil scientists with local farmers, combining ancient wisdom and modern techniques. Together, they came up with ways to strengthen the soil specific to each different situation and location, while respecting cultural traditions.


In another case, ANEC worked with a local university to put up mini weather stations on small farms, giving farmers control over data. ANEC and many other Mexican farm groups are promoting “agroecology,” a perspective that sees agriculture as an element of an entire ecosystem. They’re developing ways to produce that respect both nature and farmers’ livelihoods.


What trade policy provisions could promote access to healthy foods for everyone?

Some farmers’ organizations, like the international La Via Campesina, think that agriculture should not be in trade agreements at all. They see food as not just another commodity, but a basic human right. It’s not that countries should stop trading food products. But nations should be able to feed themselves first. The NAFTA fight taught us that our economies, and our food systems, are deeply intertwined. Farmers should be able to stay on their lands and produce healthy food at fair prices. Exports should be the icing on the cake, not the driver of rural economies. Trade rules should make that possible rather than getting in the way.

Photo: Wikiwand