Tag Archives: Karen Hansen-Kuhn

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.

 

 

Food Policy: Making a Place at the Table for Information

In recent months readers of Poking Around have quietly endured my efforts to grasp the anomaly of hunger in a world of plenty – the struggle to connect the dots between world hunger and overproduction, to get a grip on the politics that tolerate hungry families in our community, to comprehend what it means to embrace the right to food as a human right.  Because my predisposition is to view every issue through the prism of open government, my mind wants to create a holistic approach to thinking about hunger in lay terms.   Flailing in an unfamiliar world of ambiguity and complexity, my only tool is a structured approach to gathering and organizing information till it makes sense.

As usual, help is at hand.  Next week’s appearance of Anna Lappe at the Westminster Town Hall Forum offers a start.  The straightforward presentation of issues that she and her mother, Frances Moore Lappe,  offer on their Small Planet Institute website are digestible

The documentary film, A Place at the Table, is also getting the conversation started with some good information and the star quality that grabs the public attention and positions the issues at the micro level.

The information imperative leaves me to the work of scholars and policy analysts at the University of Minnesota Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy who study food issues from the macro level.   An article by Allen Levine, published in the Star Tribune some months ago, gave me a template for understanding “Global hunger – the Minnesota Connection” – not so much the answers but a frame of reference and a sense of relevance.

Levine writes that “as Minnesotans, it’s easy to dismiss global hunger as a problem that doesn’t directly affect us. And with a quarter of our state’s residents now considered obese, not having enough food may seem like the least of our worries.  But we should worry.  Demographers predict that by 2050, the world’s population will reach 9 billion; a high percentage of those people will live in cities or climate- challenged areas where they can’t grow their own food….As their incomes increase, people will expect not just food, but more nutritious (and thus, more expensive) food….Our farmers, our agribusiness, our nonprofits and, yes, our universities, all play key roles in global hunger prevention.…We have no choice: Minnesota must be part of the solution.”

Levine’s cogent proposal has five steps to reaching the goal of sustainably feeding everyone – five steps that I can count on one hand if not fully comprehend.  His construct refines my mental prism for assessing macro steps from a micro perspective – a handy guide for the lay person. The steps are straightforward and plausible:

  1. Support funding of agricultural research and development.
  2. Be vigilant about the effects of climate change, disease and drought.
  3. Accelerate the shift toward second- and third-generation biofuels such as algae and cellulosic material.
  4. Concentrate efforts on small-scale farmers, particularly those in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, where many of the world’s poorest people reside and where much of the population growth will happen.
  5. Recognize that simply having enough food isn’t enough.

Another paper published just this week by the IATP has helped me get to the next plateau.  Karen Hansen-Kuhn of IATP asks the question “Who’s at the Table? Demanding Answers on Agriculture in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.”  Trust me, I would not have paid attention to the TPP discussions until I read this paper where I learned that “The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has the potential to become the biggest regional free-trade agreement (FTA) in history, both because of the size of the economics participating in the negotiations and because it holds open the possibility for other countries to quietly ‘dock in’ to the existing agreement at some point in the future.”  In other words, it’s a Big Deal.  And the U.S. and other countries are just getting on the food wagon.

This is where the transparency issue really comes into play.  Hansen-Kuhn’s work caught my attention when she writes that “it may be that governments, particularly the U.S. government, think they’ve been burned by transparency in the past.”  She goes on to ask the question, “Is it that the trade deals can’t withstand the light of day?”  Trade policy, she writes “should start from such goals as ending global hunger, enhancing rural and urban incomes and employment, and encouraging a transition to climate friendly agriculture.  The burden of proof should be on governments to demonstrate that the commitments being negotiated in the TPP will advance the human rights to food and development.  Given the stakes for agriculture and food systems in all of the countries involved, they should include all sectors in a frank discussion of the trade rules that are needed to ensure that food sovereignty, rural livelihoods and sustainable development take precedence over misguided efforts to expand exports at any cost.”

March is Minnesota FoodShare Month, a time to think about and act on the issue of hunger in our midst..  My hope is that we take time as individuals, organizations, faith groups and families to think about the root causes and the long-term solutions to what is, after all, a solvable problem.

Open access to good information wisely wielded by informed people of conscience can make a difference.  We must make a place at the table for good information, sound judgment, and justice.