by Marion Nestle
Sep 8 2014

Trade issues: eye-glazing, but worth the trouble. Today: The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)

Sunday’s New York Times discussed how foreign governments are dropping millions on Washington DC think tanks to fund reports explicitly designed to influence government agencies to set policies favorable to the donor country’s interests.  One such interest is food trade with Asia.

The line between scholarly research and lobbying can sometimes be hard to discern.

Last year, Japan began an effort to persuade American officials to accelerate negotiations over a free-trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), one of Japan’s top priorities. The country already had lobbyists on retainer, from the Washington firm of Akin Gump, but decided to embark on a broader campaign.

Akin Gump lobbyists approached several influential members of Congress and their staffs…seeking help in establishing a congressional caucus devoted to the partnership, lobbying records show. After those discussions, in October 2013, the lawmakers established just such a group, the Friends of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

To bolster the new group’s credibility, Japanese officials sought validation from outside the halls of Congress. Within weeks, they received it from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to which Japan has been a longtime donor. The center will not say how much money the government has given — or for what exactly — but an examination of its relationship with a state-funded entity called the Japan External Trade Organization provides a glimpse.

In the past four years, the organization has given the center at least $1.1 million for “research and consulting” to promote trade and direct investment between Japan and the United States. The center also houses visiting scholars from within the Japanese government…one Japanese diplomat…said the country expected favorable treatment in return for donations to think tanks.  “If we put actual money in, we want to have a good result for that money — as it is an investment,” he said.

Ah yes, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).  Let’s start with the context: The US has trade agreements with 20 countries.

These, says the US, provide many benefits:

Trade is critical to America’s prosperity – fueling economic growth, supporting good jobs at home, raising living standards and helping Americans provide for their families with affordable goods and services.

Obviously, Japan must think the TPP will do all that and more for Japan.

But trade negotiations run into trouble when one partner has higher food safety standards—Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures—than another.

This is an issue in current negotiations over the TPP.

Like other trade agreements, the negotiations are conducted in secret.

Over the past two years there has been a steady drip of stories about the secretive negotiations regarding the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Members of Congress and congressional staffers have been stymied in their efforts to perform some measure of oversight while major corporations have reportedly been given unfettered access and influence over the deal. The public has been kept almost completely in the dark regarding negotiations that affect everything from food prices to our ability to innovate on the Internet…Historically, international trade negotiations have happened through the World Trade Organization…Trade negotiators have had trouble closing major deals over the past decade, in part because the public, and sometimes their elected officials, have stood up to decry these secret negotiations, demanding oversight opportunities and setting up websites to post leaked drafts of the agreements.

According to PoliticoPro, negotiations on TPP with Japan and 10 other countries in the Asia-Pacific region are close to conclusion, but pork producers, other farm groups, and Republicans are insisting that Japan eliminate all agricultural tariffs and completely open its market to U.S. agricultural exports.

Japan says it can offer improved market access but cannot eliminate all tariffs because of pressures from its own farm groups.

At the end of July, some House members demanded that Japan—and Canada—be dropped from the TPP if they do not agree to eliminating tariffs.

Trade negotiations work in predictable ways.  for example, despite the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which allows unfettered imports from Mexico, the US is imposing tariffs on Mexican sugar to prevent flooding the US market with cheap supplies that undermine sales of US sugar (NAFTA allows this).

The moral: In trade agreements, each country looks to maximize its own interests.  Hence: Japan’s lobbying via Washington think tanks.

  • A key point it that these are said to be “free” trade agreements. You would think then, that it’s about not having restrictions. So you could put it, very simply, on one page. Support would come from those opposed to a lot of red tape.

    Except, really, ‘free trade’ is all about adding restrictions, and I’ve heard that NAFTA, for example, is a stack of paper 3-4 feet high. So it adds mountains of red tape! (And exceptions to the restrictions complicate it further, as in the article above.) The agreements then restrict various laws inside of the US, laws that are unrelated to trade. So it comes to things like making “buy local” or “buy American” illegal. So they’re governance agreements, an alternative government, except it’s in secret and we don’t vote for reps, except the one vote at the beginning.

    But then, as a long time farm activist, I’ve learned all about mainstream media and “US interests,” such as farm/agriculture interests. So we should NOT believe anything phrased (as above) as “says the US.” That doesn’t make anything true or in the interests of the real US.

    I therefore disagree with the conclusion above. The US (“each country”) does NOT seek to “maximize it’s own interests” in these agreements. If it did, they wouldn’t need to be in secret. What the secrecy covers is that they’re in corporate interests (i.e. the corporations who are privy to the secrets,) not US interests. For example, the US is the dominant farm commodity exporter, yet the trade agreements have helped us to lose money per unit on farm exports (usually called export dumping). This is covered up by periodic claims that ‘exports’ (volume) is up, or even that export value is up, or that the agricultural trade balance is better. All of these can happen while losing money per unit. For a sum of 8 major commodities, prices (as total value [price x production of all 8, summed]) have been below full costs every year 1981-2006 (except 1996), and then for wheat, cotton, barley, oats and sorghum, (but not corn, soybeans and rice,) also about every year 2007-2013 (again with 1 exception, as I recall). So this is all for multinational commodity buyers, not at all for “the US,” but against clear (authentic) US interests (farm interests, business interests, farm state interests,etc.).

    Basically, Congress first reduced (1953-1995) and eliminated farm minimum price floor programs, (the exact opposite of what OPEC did for oil, though we had bigger market share and clout,) and then trade agreements push the cheap prices further into the internal markets of other countries, and bring cheap imports in here to drive down farm prices here. So trade and the farm bill work together to foster cheap CAFO feeds (taking value added livestock away from farmers and giving it mostly to just 4 corporations [66% of hogs, etc.]), cheap junk food ingredients, export dumping, etc.

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  • Why help Japan when the U.S needs to help to fuel the economy? Many starving families out there with young kids that need food in their stomachs. Hopefully these trade agreements can benefit both countries but I think the US should look out for them first.

  • LFisher

    Interesting post and not at all eye-glazing. At the ugly interface of economics and public health, economic interests usually prevail. Smaller nations trying to protect their public health interests face major challenges from WTO rules and trade and investment agreements. Look at lobbying to require Samoa (obesity rate 53%, diabetes rate 23%) to lift its ban on the importation of turkey tails from the US and mutton flaps from New Zealand. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/05/14/182568333/samoans-await-the-return-of-the-tasty-turkey-tail

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