by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-trade

May 31 2016

Why trade issues matter: the still-to-be-ratified Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP)

Every now and then I like to try to catch up with the arcane topic of trade agreements (see last week’s post).  Today, I’ll deal with the other one still in play, the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).  The U.S. Trade Representative’s Office states the administration’s position on the TPP. has a helpful summary of where we are on it.

For this one, should you be at all interested, the full text of the TPP is available online.  Like all trade agreements in which the U.S. participates, the TPP is about reducing and eliminating tariffs.  In principle, this is supposed to foster competition and create business opportunities and, as the Trade Representative’s Office says, “leveling the playing field for American workers & American businesses.”

The TPP was signed by the U.S. and the 11 other participating countries in February.  But for us to participate in it, Congress has to ratify the agreement.  It has not yet done so, not least because the TPP is caught up in election-year politics.

Contributing to slow approval is the weak endorsement of the International Trade Commission, which was required to report on the agreement’s economic effects.  Its conclusion: TPP would improve the economy by 2032 (the target year, apparently)—but by less than 1%.  The report gives examples of the increased percentage over baseline in 2032:

  • Annual real income: $57.3 billion (0.23 %)
  • Real GDP: $42.7 billion (0.15 %)
  • Employment would be 0.07 %
  • Exports: $27.2 billion (1.0 %)
  • Imports: $48.9 billion (1.1 %)
  • Agriculture and food output: $10.0 billion (0.5 %)

So TPP has an upside, but a small one.

What about the downside?

For starters, see the letter filed in January by 1500 groups opposing the agreement, and this BMJ paper, just out, about the TPP’s potential to block public health policies such as front-of-package food labels.

Public Citizen also has concerns.  These include, among others, that the TPP would:

  • Make it easier for corporations to offshore American jobs.
  • Push down domestic wages.
  • Flood the U.S. with unsafe imported food.
  • Permit big pharmaceutical corporations to keep lower cost generic drugs off the market.
  • Tacitly permit human rights violations in partner countries (the agreement does not mention “human rights”).

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has problems with the “fast-track” rules passed by Congress earlier this year.  Under these rules, Congress is only allowed to vote yes or no on the agreement.  It cannot amend it. The IATP says:

Provisions in the chapter on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards, for example, would reduce the food safety inspection capacity of food imports, and relegate controversies over GMOs to questions of market access rather than public or environmental health. The inclusion of investor state rules would give foreign corporations new ways to challenge a wide range of environmental and consumer laws around the world for alleged loss of anticipated profits. New rules on patent protections would limit farmers’ ability to save seeds. The agreement fails to acknowledge climate change while expanding an extractive mode of globalization. Like previous failed trade agreements, there are a lot of promises to help farmers that will likely result in the accelerated loss of family farms.

Should you want to do some advocacy on this issue, the IATP has produced a timeline for urging Congress to say no to the TPP, and a handy form for doing so.

May 26 2016

Those top-secret trade agreements: leaked TTIP documents

A couple of years ago, I wrote a long post attempting to explain the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a trade agreement under negotiation since then with the European Union.  Like all trade agreements, this one is done secretly, making it difficult for interested parties to weigh in.

But Greenpeace Netherlands has now leaked what it says are the texts of 13 chapters of the TTIP.  These include 248 pages of internal documents dating from TTIP talks at some uncertain date.  These include chapters about food and agriculture, as well as many other issues.

The documents include a 25-page “Tactical State of Play” on the negotiations similar to a 20-page public EU report, but with more detail on points of disagreement and consensus.

Greenpeace claims that the documents demonstrate major risks for the climate, environment and consumer safety.  The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative strongly disagrees, and European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malström says the leaked documents only reflect negotiating positions.

I took a look at the leaked Chapter X Agriculture [US: Market Access].  The European Union proposes, for example:

  • [On public health and safety] The Parties recognize that their respective societal choices may differ with respect to public policy decisions affecting agriculture. In this regard, nothing in this Agreement will restrain the Parties from taking measures necessary to achieve legitimate policy objectives such as the protection of public health, safety, environment or public morals, social or consumer protection, or the promotion and protection of cultural diversity that each side deems appropriate.
  • [On sustainability] The Parties recall the prominent role of sustainability in its economic, social and environmental dimensions in agriculture and aim at developing a fruitful cooperation and dialogue on agricultural sustainability issues. To this end, the Parties shall work together to…exchange ideas and share experience in developing sustainable farming practices, particularly with regards to organic farming, and environmentally friendly rural development programs.
  • [On geographical indicators] The Parties shall cooperate in matters related to geographical indications…The Parties reaffirm the importance of origin-linked products and geographical indications for sustainable agriculture and rural development, and in particular for small and medium-sized enterprises.

On international agricultural development, the United States proposes

The Parties shall work to promote international agricultural development and enhanced global food security by: (a) promoting robust global markets for food products and agricultural inputs; (b) seeking to avoid unwarranted trade measures that increase global food prices or exacerbate price volatility, in particular through avoiding the use of export taxes, export prohibitions or export restrictions on agricultural goods; and (c) encouraging and supporting research and education to develop innovative new agricultural products and strategies that address global challenges related to the production of abundant, safe and affordable food, feed, fiber, and energy.

You have to read between the lines to figure out what they are really talking about (GMOs in the case of this last one).

Politico Pro’s analysis suggests that several issues remain unresolved:

  • The link between agriculture and car parts: we take European car parts and they take our agricultural exports.
  • Protection of wine names. The EU does not want us to use European names for our wines; Washington does.
  • The EU’s October proposal to cut back on antibiotic use in livestock is not in these documents.
  • The sanitary and phytosanitary chapter (the one that deals with food safety) finds little agreement on use of animal growth hormones or GMOs.
  • GMOs: The US wants the EU to accept them. The US language says “Each Party shall endeavor to meet applicable timelines for all steps in its approval or authorization processes for products of modern agricultural technology.”

Perhaps in response, the EU has now released its own version of the agriculture chapter, and  the European Commission has released all of its working documents related to the TTIP, including draft proposals on agriculture and other matters.

The European Commission also released a report on the state of the negotiations.  Several points are unsettled.  The EU, for example:

  • Indicated it does not support a US proposal on modern agricultural technologies.
  • Insisted on the importance of animal welfare provisions in trade agreements and the relevance of the matter for SPS [Sanitary and Phytosanitary issues, such as food safety].
  • Stressed the importance of joint efforts to fight AMR [antimicrobial resistance] at all levels in all fora and argued for the inclusion of AMR in the SPS Chapter.

On our part, the U.S. goals for agricultural trade are

  • Eliminate tariffs and quotas
  • Address SPS measures and technical barriers to trade (TBT).

More than two dozen Senators urged U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman to ensure there is “a strong framework” for agriculture in the TTIP, warning that its absence could have a negative impact on Congressional support for any deal.

As long as the negotiations continue in secret, all of this will remain mysterious and out of the reach of the public.  This makes trade negotiations inherently undemocratic, something Greenpeace attempted to reverse in releasing the leaked documents.

Jan 4 2016

Politico Pro Agriculture’s pick of top 2015 food policy stories

Jason Huffman, Helena Bottemiller Evich, and Jenny Hopkinson of Politico Pro Agriculture have published their end-of-year assessment of game-changing events in food and agriculture policy last year.  Here’s their list:

  • Avian flu blew up the U.S. egg industry.
  • The Trans-Pacific Partnership deal got done.
  • The battle over the Dietary Guidelines turned even nastier.
  • The FDA banned most uses of trans fat.
  • The FDA said a genetically engineered fish is safe to eat.
  • The EPA released its final Waters of the U.S. rule, inciting the wrath of multiple industries, states and lawmakers.
  • A federal judge sent peanut company executives to jail for decades for their part in a giant salmonella outbreak.
  • The FDA released major rules to promote the safety of produce and imports.
  • The FDA doubled down on added sugars on food labels, proposing daily values for the listings.

I’ve discussed most of these on this site (all except Waters of the US).

I can’t wait to see what this year brings—more of the same, for sure, but what else?  Stay tuned.

Jul 28 2015

Trans-Pacific Partnership’s food issues: rice, sugar, Malaysian palm-oil, trans fats

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations are taking place this week in Maui, as usual, in deep secret.

Doug Palmer of Pro Politico describes the major food issues: dairy, origin names, pork, rice, and sugar.  The issues come down to market share.  Every country wants to protect its own products but have free access to markets in other countries.

Although not a food, tobacco best explains why the TPP makes people nervous.  US tobacco companies want the TPP to open new markets.  But one of the TPP provisions is said to allow corporations sue governments that pass rules that might hurt the corporation’s business.  Philip Morris sued Australia over its “plain packaging” law and is now suing Great Britain.

The US position is supposedly that a country’s measures  to protect the health of humans, animals, or plants should not be in violation of the TPP, and that challenges to tobacco-control measures should be cleared with TPP partners.   Malaysia, for example, has proposed to exempt tobacco-control measures from challenges under TPP.


The State Department has just taken Malaysia off its list of the worst countries for human trafficking (see the July 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report).

What a coincidence.  This allows Malaysia to participate in TPP negotiations.

But what bad timing.  The Wall Street Journal has just published a harrowing story about the de facto slavery of palm-oil workers on Malaysian plantations (the New York Times just did one on “sea slaves” forced to fish for pet food or animal feed).

As Rainforest Action Network said of the Malaysia story in a press release:

July 27, 2015 (SAN FRANCISCO) – The Obama administration has removed Malaysia from the list of worst offenders for human trafficking and forced labor today, one day after The Wall Street Journal published an extensive report on human trafficking and forced labor on Malaysian palm oil plantations that directly supply major U.S. companies. Malaysia is one of 12 nations in the contentious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and inclusion of a country with the lowest ranking in the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report would be problematic for the administration.

And then, there’s the trans-fat connection:  The US demand for replacement of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils has pushed Malaysia and other palm-oil countries to produce more palm oil, faster.

The Wall Street Journal explains:

Palm oil has been repeatedly named on the U.S. Department of Labor’s list of industries that involve forced and child labor, most recently in 2014. Activists have blamed palm-oil plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia for large-scale deforestation and human-rights abuses. Oil palm growers respond that the palm tree, a high-yield crop, is a useful tool for socioeconomic development.

palm oil

The TPP is hard to understand, not least because negotiations are secret.  In giving the President the go-ahead to sign the agreement, Congress made two stipulations:

  • Congress must be notified 90 days in advance of signing.
  • The terms of the agreement must be disclosed to the public 60 days prior to signing.

At least that.  TPP deserves very close scrutiny.

Jun 4 2015

Trans-Pacific Partnership: Why WikiLeaks is offering $100K for a copy

WikiLeaks is offering $100,000 for a leaked copy of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, says the Washington Post.   It especially wants to see the agricultural chapters, as do we all.

For the WikiLeaks video (and pitch) that explains why it wants those TPP chapters, click here.

It’s worth trying to understand the TPP.  Since my earlier post on it, I’ve been collecting items to help clarify the various stakeholder positions on this agreement.

For the TTP  

The Obama administration, for reasons incomprehensible to Paul Krugman, among others, is very much for it.  It claims across-the-board benefits for U.S. agriculture.  For example:

Vegetables: U.S. exports of fresh and processed vegetables to the TPP countries face tariffs as high as 90 percent. Under the agreement, tariffs across the TPP region will be cut, offering new market access opportunities to U.S. producers and exporters of fresh and processed vegetables. In 2014 the United States exported almost $5 billion in fresh and processed vegetables to the TPP region.

The USDA’s has produced fact sheets on what TPP can do for individual states.   I checked the one for New York.  The expected benefits to the state are expressed generically, not specifically to New York State:

Fresh and Processed Vegetables: U.S. exports of fresh and processed vegetables to the TPP countries face tariffs as high as 90 percent. Under the agreement, tariffs across the TPP region will be cut, offering new market access opportunities to U.S. producers and exporters of fresh and processed vegetables. In 2014 the United States exported almost $5 billion in fresh and processed vegetables to the TPP region.

Dubious about the TTP

  • Start with Robert Reich’s 2-minute video: “The Worst Trade Deal You’ve Never Heard Of.”  He calls it a Trojan horse.  It allows corporations to sue governments for passing regulations that might affect corporate profits, among other bad things.
  • Paul Krugman votes “thumbs down” on the TPP.  He argues that trade agreements aren’t all that economically beneficial  and seem to be mostly about intellectual property rights–patents and the like.  He asks: “Why, exactly, should the Obama administration spend any political capital – alienating labor, disillusioning progressive activists – over such a deal?”  His slides illustrate these points.
  • Senator Elizabeth Warren tells Rachel Maddow that corporate lobbyists and executives—not the American Public—are involved in the TPP negotiations.
  • Joseph Stiglitz makes the same point.
  • Henry Greenberg and Stephanie Shiau write in the Journal of Public Health: “As it stands the TPPA poses serious risks to global public health, particularly chronic, non-communicable diseases. At greatest risk are national tobacco regulations, regulations governing the emergence of generic drugs and controls over food imports by transnational corporations.”
  • Eric Crosbie, MA, Mariaelena Gonzalez, PhD, and Stanton A. Glantz write in the American Journal of Public Health about how trade agreements prioritize investment and intellectual property rights over health.

WikiLeaks may be on the right track here.

May 28 2015

What’s up with the Trade Promotion Authority act?

What’s going on with the Trade Promotion Authority act (TPA) has lots of people worried.   The bill, known as “fast track,” allows President Obama to make trade agreements that Congress can approve or reject, but cannot change.

The Senate passed the TPA.  It now goes to the House.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a congratulatory statement:

Today the Senate helped move America closer to securing responsible agreements that open markets for America’s farmers, ranchers and agribusiness and create jobs and improve wages across the country…Our farmers and ranchers face exorbitant tariffs and others barriers in important foreign markets, and if we do not act to maintain and gain market share in these places, our competitors will.

On the other hand, 2009 labor, environmental, family farm, consumer, faith, Internet freedom and other organizations oppose the TPA.  They say “Fast Track is rigged to give special rights to corporations at the expense of workers and consumers.”

TPP rally Maryland

In an article in the American Journal of Public Health last year, tobacco researchers explained the problem:

International trade agreements relocate decisions about tobacco control policy to venues where there is little opportunity for public scrutiny, participation, and debate…“Fast-track authority,” in which Congress cedes ongoing oversight authority to the President, further distances the public from the debate.

As I explained in previous posts on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP), trade agreements:

  • Are conducted in secrecy
  • View safety regulations and matters such as country-of-origin labeling (see yesterday’s post) as trade barriers
  • Allow multinational corporations to sue governments for passing laws that might affect corporate profits

I’ll be trying to keep up with what’s going on with trade agreements.  Stay tuned.

May 27 2015

What’s up with Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL)?

The attack on Country-of-Origin-Labeling (COOL) is a good example of why international trade agreements require close scrutiny.

In my book What to Eat, I had this to say about COOL (among other things):

In 2002, Congress passed a law requiring Country of Origin Labeling (the apt acronym is COOL) that was to take effect in 2004.  Later, under pressure from the food industry, Congress postponed the deadline until the end of September 2006…In America, food industry opposition to COOL is just about universal.   The industry complains that tracking the origin of foods is difficult, but also would prefer that you not know how far food has traveled before it gets to you.   The Grocery Manufacturers of America, an especially vigilant trade advocacy group, called the 2002 bill “a nasty, snarly beast of a bill,” but even stronger opposition came from the meat industry.   Its lobbyists argued that COOL would be “extraordinarily costly with no discernible benefit,” but their real objection was that meat producers would have to track where animals and products come from—another sensible idea that they have long resisted.

Nevertheless, COOL was supposed to go into effect for meat in 2008 and finally did so in 2014.  In the meantime, Canada and Mexico went to the World Trade Organization to argue that COOL unfairly discriminated against meat produced in those countries.

The Hagstrom Report lists Canada’s threatened trade retaliation (if the U.S. keeps COOL, Canada will raise tariffs on these products).

The WTO agrees that Canada and Mexico have the right to do this.

Now the House has introduced a bill to repeal COOL.  The House Agriculture Committee voted for the repeal.

So much for consumers’ interest in knowing where foods come from.

I’ll be posting more about trade agreements this week and next.  Stay tuned.

Apr 14 2015

Sugar politics: the sagas never end

I’ve been collecting items on sugars.  Here are the first two.  Two more will come later this week.

1.  The American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Nutrition has new guidance on sugars in schools.

Although access to junk foods remains an issue in schools, the Council blames the problem on students, parents, and staff.  It advises:

A positive emphasis on nutritional value, variety,appropriate portion, and encouragement for a steady improvement in quality will be a more effective approach for improving nutrition and health than simply advocating for the elimination of added sugars.

Really?  Evidence, please.

I ask because Kellogg could not be happier with this approach.  A little sugar, it says, may help kids eat more nutritious foods.

Surely it’s not a coincidence that one of the authors discloses receiving support from the National Dairy Council and the American Dairy Association, and the other receives support from the Nestle Nutrition Institute.

In any case, we aren’t talking about a little sugar in schools.  We are talking about candy, cupcakes, and drinks brought in for birthdays, treats, and after school celebrations.

2.  Sugar in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP)

This, you will of course recall, is the controversial multinational trade agreement currently under negotiation (see my previous post on this topic).

Japan wants to keep its tariff on sugar.

It now appears that the Japanese sugar industry gave a 1 million yen donation to a political group that supports Minister of Agriculture Koya Nishikawa, just before he became involved in the TPP talks in 2013.

As one commentator put it, considering Nishikawa’s central role in the TPP negotiations,

his receipt of a donation from an industry group brings his morals as a politician into question. Nishikawa stated that he returned the donation in light of his capacity as agricultural minister, but this is unlikely to resolve the situation…In March 2013, it was announced that the Japan Sugar Refiners’ Association would receive 1.3 billion yen in subsidies under a Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ project.

At the very least, this situation looks like blatant conflict of interest.

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