by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-trade

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.

Malaysia?

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.

Sep 16 2014

Trade negotiations continued: the meaning of “culturally appropriate food”

While I’m thinking about trade negotiations, I came across this example of why trade negotiators fight over every word.

NPR’s The Salt reports that member nations of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are in the process of developing guidelines for responsible investment in agriculture and food systems.

Responsible investment, they say,

is essential for enhancing food security and nutrition and supporting the progressive realization of the right to adequate food in the context of national food security. Responsible investment is a significant contribution to enhancing sustainable livelihoods, in particular for smallholders, and members of marginalized and vulnerable groups, creating decent work for all agricultural and food workers eradicating poverty, fostering social and gender equality, eliminating the worst forms of child labour, promoting social participation and inclusiveness, increasing economic growth, and therefore achieving sustainable development.

The guidelines are responding to concerns over “land grabs” — the term used to describe how corporations and governments are taking advantage of unclear land ownership in developing countries to buy up large tracts, regardless of consequences for previous users of the land.

Land grabs displace small farmers and have become the focus of advocacy by Oxfam.

In contrast, says FAO, responsible investment contributes to food security and nutrition through:

Increasing sustainable production and productivity of safe, nutritious, diverse, and culturally acceptable food and reducing food loss and waste.

At issue is the meaning of “culturally acceptable.”

The US delegation demanded a definition, objecting that the lack of one could lead to trade barriers against, for example, genetically modified foods.

It suggested this:

For the purposes of this document, consumers, through the free exercise of their choices and demand, determine what food is culturally acceptable.

In other words, says The Salt, “as long as somebody wants to buy it, it’s fine.”

The African delegations forged a compromise.

In the current version of the document, “culturally appropriate food” enables

consumer choice by promoting the availability of and access to food that is safe, nutritious, diverse and culturally acceptable, which in the context of this document is understood as food that corresponds to individual and collective consumer demand and preferences, in line with national and international law as applicable.

Aren’t you glad they got that settled?

Sep 12 2014

More on food trade: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP)

Here’s another post on US food trade agreements.  This is a hot topic right now but so complicated—so many agreements and policies, and so many look-alike abbreviations—that the specific policies are not easy to understand.

As I mentioned in a previous post on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, The US has trade agreements with 20 countries, and believes these provide many benefits such as “fueling economic growth, supporting good jobs at home, raising living standards and helping Americans provide for their families with affordable goods and services.”

Trade negotiations must create win-win situations for both partners, or they fail.

They run into trouble when one partner has higher food safety standards than another.

T-TIP: The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership

Americans may hardly have heard of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP),but it has caused large public protest demonstrations in Europe.

T-TIP, according to the US Trade Representative, is

an ambitious, comprehensive, and high-standard trade and investment agreement being negotiated between the United States and the European Union (EU). T-TIP will help unlock opportunity for American families, workers, businesses, farmers and ranchers through increased access to European markets for Made-in-America goods and services. This will help to promote U.S. international competitiveness, jobs and growth.

The EU puts the matter more succinctly.  TTIP (no hyphen), the EU says

aims at removing trade barriers in a wide range of economic sectors to make it easier to buy and sell goods and services between the EU and the US.

Sounds good, no?

As PoliticoPro explains, “U.S. ambassadors heart TTIP.”  It reports that the US ambassador to Sweden went on a 7-day, 400-mile bicycle ride wearing a TTIP tee-shirt to sell the agreement “to small businesses, local political leaders and everyday citizens” through videos describing its benefits.  And,

In Germany, the U.S. embassy is offering grants of $5,000 to $20,000 for activities promoting the trade deal, while American diplomats in the Netherlands have upped the awards to $24,000.

Why the heavy sales pressure?

It turns out that plenty of people do not “heart” the deal.  In the TTIP regulations are provisions that would

  • Allow foreign companies to sue governments over regulations that damage business, even if they put consumers at risk.
  • Allow harm to the environment.
  • Reduce EU food safety standards: bring U.S. poultry rinsed with hyperchlorinated water into Europe, for example.
  • Protect regional food names like Parmigiano-Reggiano (the US doesn’t like this one)

The EU denies that these are problems.

On the other hand, a new report out from the European Parliament says that while reducing tariffs will increase agricultural exports from the EU to the US by 60%, and imports from the US by 120% (by 2025), there are some risks to EU producers, especially those producing beef and suckler cows.

Unless the US and EU achieve “regulatory convergence,” meaning similarity in standards, EU producers may face the increased costs of complying with their own more stringent regulations in use of GMOs, use of pesticides, and food safety standards for meat.

The secrecy issues

Like other trade negotiations, T-TIP negotiations are exempt from the usual transparency requirements.  The EU explains why:

For trade negotiations to work and succeed, you need a certain degree of confidentiality, otherwise it would be like showing the other player one’s cards in a card game.

For a quick explanation of the secrecy and other concerns, see the video “TTIP: A Race to the Bottom” produced by The Greens/European Free Alliance.

The Greens point out that Corporate Europe Observatory, which tracks lobbying on TTIP, has

focused on the agribusiness sector showing that food multinationals have taken the largest share of Commission lobbying efforts for TTIP. There are fears such efforts have resulted in a corporate capture of the TTIP agenda, driven by some of the largest companies operating in both regions. It is likely to further add to calls for greater transparency in the negotiations, and may even risk stalling the deal altogether if efforts are not made to address public concerns surrounding its secrecy.

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) is especially concerned about the secrecy of negotiations over the food safety provisions.   Negotiations, IATP says

are conducted largely as if they were private business deals. Despite many public interest issues that are subject to “least trade-restrictive” criteria in the TTIP and other so-called Free Trade Agreements, access to draft negotiating texts is restricted to negotiators and their security-cleared advisors, overwhelmingly corporate lobbyists. About 85 percent of 566 advisors to the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) come from various industry sectors.

The IATP’s analysis of leaked drafts of the agreement is enough to explain why trade agreements are so hard for mere mortals to fathom.  Lobbyists, however, are paid to know exactly what the provisions are, what they mean, and how to make sure they are worded to benefit their corporate employers.

Stay tuned.

Aug 6 2014

Country-of-Origin-Labeling (COOL) for meat: Yes!

You might think that knowing where meat comes from would be useful to know, but big chunks of the meat industry think otherwise.  They have been fighting Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) for more than a decade, and the fight isn’t over yet.

In the latest skirmish, the US Court of Appeals for DC has decided that the USDA can implement its 2013 rules requiring country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for meat and poultry products, something it has been trying to do for a long time.

COOL laws mandate that meat products be labeled to tell where the food animals were born, raised and slaughtered, like “”born in Mexico, raised and slaughtered in the United States” or “born, raised and slaughtered in the United States.”

The judges said COOL does not violate the First Amendment—the principal argument used by meat industry groups to challenge the labeling law.

The American Meat Institute (AMI) says the ruling is disappointing.

Let’s leave aside the question of the meat industry’s invocation of First Amendment challenges to achieve what it can’t get any other way.  Fortunately, this ploy did not work this time.

But the easiest way to understand what this absurd business is about is to take the events chronologically.

This history, to say the least, is “convoluted.”

I went back to see what I had written about COOL in my 2006 book, What to Eat.

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 food industries, Congress postponed the deadline until 2005 for fish, but until 2006 and, later, 2008 for other foods…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…the industry wants COOL to be voluntary–so they can voluntarily decline to put COOL labels on their products.

In 2009, Canada and Mexico challenged COOL at the World Trade Organization (WTO), arguing that COOL was a trade barrier in disguise that would hurt the meat industry on both sides of the border.  The WTO issued a ruling in 2011 so ambiguous that both Canada and the U.S. said it favored their positions.

Canada and Mexico asked the WTO for another review.  The WTO has apparently rendered its decision but has not announced it publicly.  Politico Pro speculates that “the ruling does not bode well for USDA.”

Why COOL is a good thing is evident from  a case in Canada.   Officials of an Ontario greenhouse face criminal fraud charges for allegedly selling fresh vegetables from Mexico to Canadian retailers and representing them as Canadian produce.

I like knowing where my food comes from, don’t you?  And these days, meat especially.

 

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