Restoring Food and Trade Sovereignty at Home and Abroad (Organized by Samantha Chirillo) (LAW 142). Public Interest Environmental Law Conference, March 3-6, 2011. U.S. farm and trade policies have caused the loss of food security at home and abroad. Although the problem started during the Great Depression, U.S. farm policy since the 1950s and more recent ‘free trade’ agreements have subsidized petrochemical-intensive agribusiness, reduced the demand for and price of local food, and forced many family farmers out of business while disempowering communities. Grassroots efforts to rebuild community food systems and pass comprehensive trade reform (the TRADE Act) are making headway.
Panelists: Sarah Kleeger, Open Oak Farm, Adaptive Seeds, Southern Willamette Valley Bean & Grain Project; Mary Ann Jasper, Sales and Distribution Coordinator, Stalford Farms; Willamette Seed & Grain, LLC, Corvallis Sustainability Coalition’s Local 6 Food Action team; Robert Roth, Founding Member, Lane County Fair Trade Campaign.
A Statement of the Problem
By Robert Roth – March 6, 2011
- What I have to say today is at the edge of my own understanding. I’ve been paying attention to trade policy for years, but only recently made the connection with domestic US farm policy. This talk is not a definitive analysis, but a starting point. I will post my notes for this talk and a brief list of references and resource on my blog.
- I enforced what has been called the law of deception, prosecuted fraud, for about 20 years. Forest is this: Both “farm policy” and “trade policy” are marketing terms, and forms of deception – real purpose & effect is to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible for people who already have too much. As collateral damage, industrial agriculture and unfair trade policies are destroying the biosphere.
- The food-related problems we have, both in agriculture & trade, are a direct result of government policy essentially dictated by agribusiness and multinational corporations. So we need to pay attention to the US Farm Bill and to trade policy, if we’re to repair the world, continue to eat, and perhaps, avoid the civil unrest and violence that can occur when too many people find themselves unemployed and without access to food.
- About a billion people are chronically hungry. It’s been suggested the blow-ups in the Middle East, although they have many causes, were triggered by high unemployment and new food price hikes. And people have spoken of those blow-ups as conceivably triggering WW III. Resource wars at any rate appear increasingly likely.
- How did we get here? US farm policy since roughly end of WWII has not only ravaged the soil and water but driven millions of small & mid-sized farms out of business, concentrating control in the hands of agribusiness corporations.
- Beginning late 20th century, trade agreements globalized this process, decimating the farming sectors of poorer countries & forcing newly impoverished farmers & farm workers to migrate for survival. Globally, 17 corporations now control the bulk of food production.
- We face resource depletion, climate change, & economic collapse, all pretty much at once. Policy-makers are doing everything possible to avoid or slow down the economic collapse (“massive campaign to sustain the unsustainable” – Jim K.) & these measures are accelerating resource depletion and climate change. But part of the problem they’re not addressing is that in the US, there are no longer enough living-wage jobs to sustain the economy.
- It seems possible we face a comprehensive system breakdown. But if so, I have no sense of how long that might take, and suspect that if it does occur, it will take longer than some of us expect. In the meantime, we can help the economic situation and create sustainable jobs, while at the same time addressing some of the threats to the biosphere, by addressing the problems of industrial agriculture.
- [When I was in grammar school – 1950s – current events newsletter said we could feed 25 billion people with the new chemical farming methods. Hasn’t worked out that way. (Where did that newsletter come from? System for the indoctrination of the young. - Dewey)]
- So, restoring food security & trade sovereignty requires that we address the farm Bill – next one is due in 2012 – & stand current trade policy on its head.
- Real beginning of the problem, per Bob Jensen interview with Wes Jackson, “Future Farming”:
About 10,000 years ago humans moved from gathering/hunting to agriculture, tapping into the first major pool of energy-rich carbon — the soil. … Humans went on to exploit the carbon of the forests, coal, oil, and natural gas. But through all that, we’ve continued to practice agriculture that led to soil erosion beyond natural replacement levels. That’s the basic problem of agriculture.
[In addition to] soil loss, the industrialization of agriculture has given us pollution by toxic chemicals, now … present in our farmlands and streams. We have less soil, and it is more degraded. We’ve masked that for years through the use of petrochemicals … . But that “solution” is … in fact part of the problem. There are no technological substitutes for healthy soil and no miraculous technological fixes for the problem of agriculture. We need to move past the industrial model and adopt an ecological model.
- We need a whole new system of food production, with less chemically dependent agribusiness and much more locally based, smaller-scale, more labor-intensive, and sustainable farming. Jackson & Wendell Berry call for a “50-year farm bill” – op ed in NYT Jan. 2009.
- BTW, agriculture also led to a further set of problems: it made possible cities, with centralized, hierarchical control by power elites and the concentration & maldistribution of wealth. These problems have characterized much of human history and are still with us. Useful to note the continuity.
- Fast forward to European colonization of the Americas (as described by Mark Ritchie & Kevin Ristau, “Crisis By Design: A Brief Review of US Farm Policy” (1987):
From the earliest days of European colonization, America’s commercial agriculture … was dominated by large-scale [operations, including] the slave plantations of the South, huge Spanish haciendas in the Southwest, and the bonanza wheat and cattle farms of the West….[most] in the hands of wealthy individuals or foreign investors. By the mid-1800s…the federal government [had established] policies putting family farmers on much of the land….But…farm families…[immediately] found themselves caught in a classic cost/price squeeze. Skyrocketing prices for [items such as] seeds, credit, and transportation could not be covered by the prices the grain monopolies were willing to pay for their crops. Freight rates were controlled by the railroads, while interest rates were set by the big city banks. [There was a] series of rural depressions and panics in the late 1800s and early 1900s….[F]amily farmers organized political movements…[and federal legislation to fix their problems] was passed by Congress three times, but vetoed twice by Pres. Coolidge and once by Pres. Hoover.
- Then came the New Deal. Production controls, price supports, farm credit. A national grain reserve. “Public utility” model.
- But stabilizing prices hurt grain speculators, who thrive on price volatility, and supply management reduced farm acreage, cutting sales of pesticides and fertilizers sold by farm chemical & oil companies.
- Grain corporations thrive on high volume, low-prices, as they can store food, buy low & sell high, which smaller farmers don’t have the resources to do. 1940s-50s – powerful interests manipulated policy, set prices below cost of production.
- Total # of farms in the US: 6.5 m./1935→2.05 m. 1997, with most of the decline among family farms.
- Big corporations also manipulate subsidies: under “Freedom to Farm” Act, 1996-98, top 1% of subsidy recipients got avg. $249,000; top 10% got 61% of $$.
- Oregon received over $1.5bn. in federal farm subsidies 1995-2009; but it all went to 13% of the state’s farms. 87% got nothing.
- Policy also favors agricultural products geared for export. Willamette Valley went from relative food sufficiency 50 years ago, when it was a major canning center, to specializing in grass seed production & importing 95% of our food.
- So-called “free trade” agreements globalized this process, as big subsidized operations drove smaller local farms out of business throughout the world.
- E.g., Mexico used to subsidize small farmers. NAFTA required that Mexico stop those subsidies and credit programs. But under US farm policy, the federal government here still gives billions in subsidies to big agribusinesses, which can thus sell corn in Mexico for less than it costs to grow.
- This arrangement drove over one million small Mexican farmers out of business. Nearly seven million farm workers became unemployed. Many came here.
- At the same time, trade agreements cause job losses among the people already living here. At least ten thousand Oregon jobs were lost in 2009 due to trade agreements. This causes tension between current residents and newly arriving immigrants.
- Part of a solution: reorient US farm policy toward support for smaller farms.
- As James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, wrote in May 2009: There’s no way we can continue the petro-agriculture system of farming. … President Obama and Ag Secretary Vilsack have not given a hint that they understand the gravity of the situation. … [But it] happens to be one of the few problems we face that public policy could affect sharply and broadly — if we underwrote the reactivation of smaller, local farm operations instead of shoveling money to giant “agribusiness” (or Citibank, or Goldman Sachs, or AIG…).
- Wes Jackson interviewed by Bob Jensen: [P]rotecting the soil is not only an ecological imperative but an opportunity for positive economic and cultural change as well. The proposals we’re discussing would increase employment opportunities in agriculture — sustainable farming will require more “eyes per acre,” and replacing fossil-fuel energy with human energy and ecological knowledge makes good economic sense.
- [Right now, globally, 70 percent of food is grown on farms less than 2 hectares (4 acres) in size, tended in large part by women.]
- 2008 Farm Bill perpetuated market deregulation and volatility. But the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found small gains for local food system support (Farmers Market Promotion Program), support for beginning farms & ranchers, and for organic agriculture. But the Institute concluded, the bill did nothing to address the larger problems. For starters, we should re-establish a publicly-held grain reserve and stronger antitrust enforcement.
On trade policy, the TRADE Act would have existing trade deals renegotiated, and require consideration of consumer, environmental, labor and other protections in future pacts. But Obama is instead pushing a NAFTA-style deal with Korea. So the next step for us is to defeat the Korea Free Trade Agreement. Ron Wyden chairs a Senate subcommittee that could help a lot to achieve that result. Call and ask him to do so, and to sponsor comprehensive trade reform like the TRADE Act from the last Congress. If you live outside of Oregon, please contact your own Senators and Congressional Representative with that message.
Selected Bibliography & Resources
Allen, Will, Kate Duesterberg and Ronnie Cummins, “The Real Gold Standard: Local and Organic Food and Farming,” www.counterpunch.org/allen02252011.html.
Anderson, Cassandra, “Monsanto Shifts ALL Liability to Farmers,” February 21, 2011,
Astyk, Sharon, “Are We Seeing the Early Signs of a Seed Availability Crisis?”, Casaubon’s Book website, December 11, 2008.
CounterPunch website, www.counterpunch.org; on the economic and financial crises, articles by Mike Whitney, Pam Martens, Michael Hudson and others; and anything by James K. Galbraith, Simon Johnson, Robert Pollin, Robert Reich.
Cummings, Ronnie, “How Industry Giants Are Undermining the Organic Movement: The Organic Monopoly and the Myth of ‘Natural’ Foods,” www.counterpunch.org/cummings07092010.html.
Devinder Sharma’s ZSpace Page, “Caught In The Food Pirates’ Trap,” March 1, 2011.
Gray, Heather, and K. Rashid Nuri, “Witnessing a Shift in the Worldview of Agriculture: How Organic Agriculture Can Feed the World,” www.counterpunch.org/gray03102010.html.
Hansen-Kuhn, Karen, “Making US Trade Policy Serve Global Food Security Goals,” Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, January 2011.
Harkness, Jim, “Is Famine the New Normal,” Policy Innovations, a publication of the Carnegie Council, February 17, 2011.
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, www.iatp.org; Communications, Ben Lilliston, (612) 870-3416, BLilliston@iatp.org; see esp., “Farm Bill Perpetuates Market Deregulation and Volatility” (press release), May 13, 2008; see also, January 07, 2011 press release, “Health leaders call for healthy Farm Bill,” and www.HealthyFoodAction.org.
Jensen, Robert, “An Interview with Wes Jackson: Future Farming,” www.counterpunch.org/jenssen01302009.
Mazzei, Umberto, “International Speculation and Rising Food Prices,” www.counterpunch.org/mazzei02142011.html.
Murphy, Sophia, “Concentrated Market Power and Agricultural Trade,” Ecofair Trade Dialogue Discussion Papers, No. 1/August 2006/English Version.
Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch,
, Oregon Fair Trade Campaign,
, and Alliance for Global Justice,
, on trade policy and issues.
Ritchie, Mark, & Kevin Ristau, “Crisis By Design: A Brief Review of US Farm Policy,” League of Rural Voters Education Project (1987).
Roth, Robert, “The Financial and Economic Crisis: An Assessment and Action Plan,” May 18, 2009, accessible at www.healingjustice.wordpress.com (see Pages).
Seattle Farm Bill Principles, Supporting Healthy Farms, Food and People, Guidance for the 2012 Farm Bill, www.SeattleFarmBillPrinciples.org.
Willoughby, Robin, “Good for Farmers? The World Seed Conference,” www.counterpunch.org/willoughby09162009.html.