World Trade Organization’s 12th Ministerial meeting in Geneva

Global supply chain disruptions, rising prices for foods and farm production inputs, increasing evidence of agriculture’s impact on climate change, and unconscionable numbers of people experiencing hunger and food insecurity set the tone of the World Trade Organization’s 12th Ministerial meeting which was held in Geneva, Switzerland during the week of June 12.

At the same time, the global movement La Via Campesina brought together a delegation in Geneva to draw attention to the negative impacts that the liberalization of trade and so-called free trade agreements, promoted by the World Trade Organization, have had on farmers, biodiversity, food security, and climate change. I was able to participate in this mobilization along with farmers and farmer organization representatives from around the world. On Saturday, June 11, we were joined by more farmers from France and Switzerland as well as members of other organizations as we marched through the streets of Geneva with a demand that the WTO get out of agriculture completely.

Free trade basically means that countries agree not to have any barriers to trade, which in general it might be good, but when it comes to agriculture, there are many considerations. Countries may be subject to threats to their food when forced to accept imports that undermine their own farmers, for example. They lose their political independence and they lose their cultural and traditional foods. They become dependent of imports while their society falls apart. Farmers are often at highest risk of being hungry. Food becomes a commodity.

Hearing the experiences of farmers and food producers from other countries showed the similarities between their stories and those of farmers here in Iowa and the fragility of the globalized agriculture system that has been made possible by the WTO rules. ‘Get big or get out’ was a common theme, whether I was talking to the vegetable farmer, Rudi from France, or the livestock and grain farmer, Luis from Spain where big business is buying up land. Guadalupe from El Salvador said that crop production systems reliant on expensive technology and chemicals is pushing out small-holder farmers. Baramee from Thailand said that speculation on food, rather than a shortage of food, is driving up the prices, as futures trading and market mechanisms distort the price of food. Burry from Gambia noted that if African countries had not become dependent on wheat and other imported grains, we would not be calling the current situation a food crisis. Traditional African foods would be sufficient. Sainal from Indonesia told how palm oil plantations are having devastating impacts on the environment and local food production. Yudvir from India, where millions of farmers protested for over a year to reinstate minimum support prices, focused on the critical and logical need for each country to maintain food reserves, not allowed by the WTO rules.

Jose from Costa Rica stated the common threads quite well. In the 1990’s, he and his fellow farmers were told that to improve their lives, they needed free trade agreements. They were told any disagreements would be resolved by the WTO. Today, as here in Iowa, Costa Rica and other Latin American countries are losing the viability to raise livestock because of the large confinement facilities that buy cheap feed. Plantations of monocrops grown for animal feed and for export are replacing food production for local and regional consumption. Young people have great difficulty in becoming farmers. Serious social instability as well as environmental harms have been a result. Jose recognized that the current food crisis is fabricated as there is enough food produced in the world today.

These negative impacts that free trade agreements have had on food security is recognized by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Michael Fakhri, who has also called for the WTO to end its involvement with agriculture.

So, I ask, is there no limit to the greed of corporations and to the consolidation of farms? Where will it end? Who will farm this land, produce our food? What will be the future environmental and social impacts? How secure will Iowa be in regards to food? How secure are we today?

Agricultural trade should be negotiated on the basis of human rights and the needs of people and the environment, instead of the benefit to corporations. Trade between countries should be based on cooperation instead of competition, and should recognize the cultural and traditional foods of people. Each country needs to be able to protect its farmers and its environment.

Iowa farmers, and Iowans as a whole, in fact, all the world’s people, need stability in agriculture and in our food system, not volatility and fragility. We are led to believe that it is good that Iowa is in the top two producers of corn, soybeans, eggs, and pork, with a promise of new markets to raise prices. This path has not benefited farmers, communities, or our precious ecosystem. We need policies that allow farmers to be paid a fair (parity) price, to have diversity in our production system with livestock on farms and beneficial crop rotations. For us to have any chance of achieving these goals and to end food insecurity at home and elsewhere, the World Trade Organization must get out of agriculture.

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