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If Farming Is Hard, Free Trade Makes It Harder

December 2013

Being a farmer is hard.  This is true no matter what policies exist. The work itself is difficult, and making money from farming requires many, many factors to line up just right.  Get too much rain, too dry a season, too many bugs and the crop can be destroyed.  Prices might be higher, but there’s just not that much to sell.  Even a big harvest when everything goes well doesn’t guarantee success. A bumper crop means that there are a whole lot of tomatoes, corn, peaches, or eggplants at the market, so prices go down. Historically farmers all over the world have had smart ways to deal with these challenges—planting multiple different crops, rotating their fields, practicing age-old methods of dealing with pests, and generally ensuring against disaster by not relying on only one crop.  But farming in the Free Trade Era defies these time-tested methods and makes it even harder to make a living from the fields.

When farmers get involved with industrial farming (monocropping, buying seeds from multinational companies and using the pesticides those seeds need, for example) it just gets more complicated because farmers have to buy all this stuff (‘inputs’ as they’re called) before they grow anything.  Most of the time farmers have to buy on credit since they haven’t made any money yet, so they kick off their entire season in debt.  If anything goes wrong—from bad weather to too much production to an equipment breakdown—they may not even make enough to pay back their debt and then they have to begin the whole cycle again the next year.

Governments have often supported their agricultural systems by creating supports for farmers and rural communities.  Most have protected farmers by placing quotas, tariffs, and other controls on imports so that their farmers do not have to compete against super-low priced agricultural goods from other countries.

Free trade changed this picture.

Based in the economic theory of “rational utility maximization,” (the idea that everyone acts in their own economic self-interest all of the time)—free trade (also called neoliberalism) asserts that each country should focus on its so-called “comparative advantage” (what it does most efficiently) and leave behind any activities that aren’t efficient.  By this logic Mexico, for example, is seen as efficient in producing cheap labor (I’m not joking this is actually the rationale behind free trade deals like NAFTA) while the United States is efficient at producing cheap corn.  (Never mind for a moment that the US subsidizes corn in defiance of World Trade Organization Rules.)  Therefore, following the logic of neoliberalism, Mexico should stop growing corn and instead Mexican farmers should become low-wage earners in sweatshops (maquilas) and in the service economy while the US should export (dump) cheap corn in Mexico.

Free Trade makes life impossibly hard for corn farmers in Mexico by undercutting prices so severely that farmers cannot make a living.  Alberto Gómez, Jesus Andrade, and Rogelio Alquiciras of La Via Campesina Mexico told Grassroots International Program Coordinator Jovanna Garcia Soto that this is perhaps the worst moment in the history of Mexican peasants.  They describe NAFTA and other free trade agreements as the most important barriers to food sovereignty.  “The neoliberal model in Mexico is destroying the sovereignty, freedom and autonomy of the country, creating a permanent crisis,” says Rogelio Alquiciras of the Via Campesina.

On the US side, farmers don’t fare much better since, as John Peck Executive Director of the Family Farm Defenders explains, “farmers don’t export, corporations do.”  In other words, it’s corporations that buy cheap food, export it across borders (and sometimes back again) making a whole lot of money in the process.

Using NAFTA (and the earlier General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade—GATT) as a template,  Free Trade Agreement (FTAs) have expanded with CAFTA-DR (a version of NAFTA that includes Central America and the Dominican Republic) as well as multiple bilateral and multi-lateral agreements around the world. The devastation on farmers lives and livelihoods wrought by free trade cannot be underestimated.  A horrific testament to what can only be described as the carnage left in the wake of free trade is the unimaginably high incidences of suicide of farmers in India.  Vandana Shiva reports that more than 284,000 farmers in India have committed suicide as a result of collapsing prices. Just stop and think about that number for a minute.  The sheer size and scale is breathtaking; the indictment against free trade unmistakable, all the more so since many of these farmers used the chemicals required in industrial agriculture to poison themselves as a last act.  Free trade is bad for farmers; very, very bad.

In the most recent Nyéléni Newsletter, Henry Saragih, chairperson of Serikat Petani Indonesia, explains the tension between farmers and free trade this way:

Food and agriculture are central to our lives as peasants and small farmers. Agriculture is not only our livelihood: it our life, our culture and our way of relating to Mother Nature. The logic of free trade runs counter to this as it makes food a commodity; a mere product to be bought and sold. This principle of free trade is embodied and pushed forward by the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture aims to make agricultural polices the world over more market oriented in order to facilitate trade flows… The commodification of food and agriculture through the WTO has caused the death of farmers.

Saragih goes on to cite the death of Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae, who killed himself at a protest of the WTO in Cancun 10 years ago, wearing a sign that read ‘WTO Kills Farmers.’

Elsewhere, including in the US, family farmers are being forced to give up their farms at alarming rates. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the number of farms in the United States has fallen from about 6.8 million in 1935 to less than 2 million today. Farm Aid estimates that roughly 330 farmers every week close down for good, leaving behind their fields and looking for other work. That means the task of growing food to feed the world is falling into the hands – or laboratories – of giant agro-businesses who are driving free trade agreements to further boost their reach.

In Bali, Indonesia this week the World Trade Organization (WTO) is holding its 9th Ministerial Meetings.  Protests are being convened by the Indonesian People’s Movement Against Neocolonialism-Imperialism (Gerak Lawan).  Two new trade deals are in the works, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA). The TPP is currently being negotiated by 12 countries, and covers 40 percent of the global economy.

“Why would anyone expect anything but another race to the bottom in terms of farm prices, worker wages, environmental standards and human rights with passage of the TPP?” asks John Kinsman president of the Family Farm Defenders.  There can be no doubt that 20 years of free trade has revealed very negative consequences not just for farmers, but also for workers and the environment.

In Gerak Lawan’s call to action they set out these demands:

What we demand and propose is Economic Justice – a system where there is redistribution of wealth and the recovery of peoples’ control over vital sectors of our economy in order to better serve the people instead of the elites. The financial sector and the banking industry cannot speculate and gamble with the future of humanity. The extractive sector, the industries, the agri-business, the service sector cannot over-exploit our Mother Earth and treat humans as slaves.

Being a small farmer is hard but it’s necessary. Small farms still feed most of the world and they slow down climate change.  Free trade destroys small farms and farmers.  With 100,000 farmers dead by suicide and millions across the globe displaced, the impacts of free trade on farmers and their communities are clear.  It is time to repeal existing free trade agreements and stop the WTO and new trade agreements.

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