Secrecy Shrouds Trade Talks – Food Policy, Information Issues on the Table

Oats peas beans and barley grow, Oats peas beans and barley grow

Do you or I or anyone know, how oats peas beans and barley grow?

The toddler’s refrain hums in the interstices of my mind as I try to wrap my head around the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) on in progress.  Other regional trade talks, particularly Doha, have piqued my proclivity for perceptive paranoia.  Now, I am focused on two pivotal issues relating to TAFTA.

In a word, I am appalled at 1) the influence of corporate interests on the talks, and 2) equally, at the impenetrable cone of silence that encapsulates the process.   Because international trade agreements seem arcane, remote, irrelevant chats among trusted elite, the vast majority of us are easily duped; in fact, we quietly choose to opt out – we lack the time or interest to keep up.  This in spite of the fact that TAFTA agreements will regulate all U.S. and EU trade and 30% of world trade in goods.

Concerns about the food issues are seminal; talks could formalize low standards for years to come.  Those standards relate to food safety, GMO’s, environmental impact, workers’ rights, packaging, procurement politics, labeling, and other details in which the well-paid devil has his way.  Though consumers do care deeply about such implicit concerns we don’t connect the dinner table reality with the endless chain of regulations over which the clandestine negotiators hold sway.

Furthermore, there are two information threats inherent in the TAFTA talks.  One is the issue of public access to information about what’s going on.  Pre-TAFTA talks have all been held in secret, as have parallel deliberations of other regional trade negotiations. The deciders are enthusiastic about the option to “fast track” the talks, in large part to stem any tide of interest or press coverage.  The second information issue waiting in the wings is core, the potential inclusion of copyright, patent and trademark issues in the talks – the subject of future coverage as the story unfolds

In a powerful protest to the chilling effect of secrecy on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal Senator Elizabeth Warren (Dem, MA) wrote, “Trade agreements are important. They affect everything. – our imports and exports, wages, jobs, the environment, financial services, and even the Internet.  But if people can’t follow the basic outline of the negotiations, then they can’t have any real input into the process. I have heard the argument that transparency would undermine the Trade Representative’s policy to complete the trade agreement because public opposition would be significant.  In other words, if people knew what was going on, they would stop it.  This argument is exactly backwards.  If transparency would lead to widespread public opportunity to a trade agreement, then that trade agreement should not be the policy of the United States. “  (Letter to Michael Froman, then nominee now U.S. Trade Representative appointed by President Obama)

Similarly, voices from the other side of the pond have been raised.  Natacha Cingotti, a campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe, has written that ”the negotiations must be opened up for public scrutiny.  It is unacceptable that the deal is being negotiated behind closed doors, without timely and full access to the draft documents long the process, and consultation with civil society – all the more since US business groups have access to negotiation texts.”

Officially, TAFTA talks began July 8 in DC.  In fact, corporate leaders and government officials from the U.S. and the European Union have been meeting and have already identified issues deemed to be “trade irritants, “ public interests such as the environment, health concerns, worker rights, small farm concerns, consumer rights and other impediments to trade.  Karen Hansen-Kuhn of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy at the University of Minnesota is one of the vocal critics of the process.  “We should be raising standards to protect our health and the environment and improve our food system, not lowering them.  Perhaps if so much of the negotiations weren’t being held in secret, these issues would hold more weight.” Kuhn-Hansen’s words are included in a letter written to trade representatives by a broad-based network of organizations representing a range of public interests.

There is precedent for public concern that reflects the words of Senator Warren.  Writing in Guardian UK Joseph Siglitz cites the history of the Doha talks as an example of what goes wrong behind closed doors.  Given this recent history, he writes, it now seems clear that the negotiations to create a free trade area between the U.S. and Europe, and another between the U.S. and much of the Pacific (except for China) are not about establishing a true free trade system.  Instead, the goal is a managed trade regime – managed, that is, to serve the special interests that have long dominated trade policy in the west.”

So, though I have no idea how oats peas beans and barley grow, I do know that everyone has a right to these and to a full plate of wholesome food essential to life;  I also know that, absent transparency, the rights and interests of the public never make it to the table, no matter the venue. Concerned citizens must demand that the talks be open.  In this era of reduced investigative journalism, we must support a free press that will cover, report and interpret the negotiations from a position that is both informed and fair-handed.

 

 

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