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Food and Trade Policy:
Are we trading away the future?

Bill Christison
Madison, Wisconsin

Bill Christison is president of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) and the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. This speech was delivered to the NFFC, July 29, 2002.

The answer to the question is an emphatic - yes, yes, yes! But before we talk about trade and all of its ramifications, let us talk about food and agricultural policy.

Food safety system

Many consumers have for a long time been mindful of the kind, type and purity of the food they consume, and since 9-11-01, the consumers in the U.S. have increased questions about food security. Some consumers wonder why food should be hauled thousands of miles before it is consumed. They also wonder if there would be food shortages in the event of escalation of the present war on terrorism.

Consumers want to know the origin of their food. Country of origin labeling was one of our amendments from our Farm Bill proposal, foods from Family Farms Act, which dud make it into the final Bill.

Last week, ConAgra of Greeley, Colorado was forced to make the second recall of a food item in U.S. history. They recalled 18 million pounds of ground beef. Food recalls of this magnitude offer disturbing evidence that the nation’s Food Safety System for meat may not be working well and this has happened after a new system has been implemented. Even more disturbing, the E.Coli pathogen was not discovered at the slaughterhouse but downstream after the meat had left ConAgra and was at a grinding plant that made hamburgers. The failure was clearly ConAgra’s fault. 28 people in seven states were made sick. Some were hospitalized with life-threatening situations.

I believe our food and agriculture policy is badly broken and needs to be fixed. Our judicial enforcement policies such as Packers and Stockyard Act and Anti-Trust needs to be enforced. When we have four packers processing more than 80% of the cattle this kind of recall is what the consumer can expect. At the same time, the family farmer can expect below cost of production prices.

Agriculture policy

Our agriculture policy has also been broken for a long time. Family farmers have been forced to leave the land in record numbers for years, and when we thought the situation could get no worse, it did, with the passage of the 1996 Farm Bill. The ’96 Farm Bill mandated that prices could go to market clearing levels and they did. The pork chops that you paid $3 a pound for, the family farmer sold for 8¢ and a bushel of corn fell below $1.00. According to USDA figures, the average cost to produce a bushel of corn is $3.60.

The ’96 Farm Bill and 2002 Farm Bill both allow for de-couple payments to be paid to farmers. However, these payments represent a small part of what we actually lose and what’s worse is 70% of the payments go to the largest 10% of farmers. The balance of the payments go to the next largest 40% of the farmers, which leaves the smallest 50% of farmers with little or no payment at all. At the same time, taxpayers get a double whammy. You must pay the price for your food and you must also pay the subsidy cost to farmers with the lion share of these payments going to, in many cases, corporate operations.

We have this kind of agriculture policy because multinational corporations, the commodity organizations and Farm Bureau want this kind of policy. They all want to be supplied with very cheap inputs so they can value add and reap the profits. It is not uncommon for corporations to make 50% annual profits and the family farmers, even those who get a small subsidy, continues to produce below cost of production and they continue to leave the family farm.

You may have heard farm subsidies in the 2002 Farm Bill have been greatly increased, but actually since the ’96 Farm Bill and the additional payments that have been made due to disaster, the payments will be close to the same.

An additional problem for family farmers and consumers is the revolving door policy in this administration between multinational corporations, commodity organizations and the American Farm Bureau. Virtually all of the agencies at the national level have been filled with people who are there only to guarantee the present system continues.

Trade policy

The trade policy of the United States is also in a shambles. At this minute, President Bush has obtained Fast Track in order to negotiate new free-trade agreements. GATT, NAFTA, and WTO trade models have failed family farmers and ranchers and have devastated rural America. Commodity dumping, price manipulation and devastatingly low prices for farmers are just some of the casualties of this failed agriculture and trade policies. Third World countries have suffered even worse devastation because of our present trade policies. Since NAFTA was put into place in 1994, U.S. food produce have suffered the following consequences:

  • The overall agricultural trade surplus has declined from $22.5 billion per year to $12 billion in 2000, a 47% decrease.
  • Corn exports have decreased 11%, and corn prices have decreased 20%.
  • Wheat exports have decreased 8% and wheat prices have decreased 28%.
  • Cotton exports have decreased 28% and cotton prices have decreased 38%.
  • Soybeans exports have increased 16% but the price has fallen by 15% creating a net loss of 2% in the value of our soybean export market.
  • The $416 million dairy deficit has climbed to $796 million.
  • A $21 million beef surplus has declined to a $152 million beef deficit.
  • U.S. workers lost 766,000 manufacturing jobs.
  • More than 4,000 corporations have left the U.S. for cheaper labor cost and less environmental law.

There are only a handful of corporations that are ultimately in control of most commodities produces in the world. As long as they can keel these commodities churning from one country to another they stand to gain a great deal.

Farmer-owned reserve

I believe it is imperative that we as family farmers and members of important coalitions build relationships in the same way with farmers from other nations that have export capability so we can control through a farmer-owned reserve the production and sale of commodities and we should also set the trade policy. We are once again learning right now as commodity prices increase because of drought in our country the value of balancing supply with demand.

A prerequisite to this policy would be to first implement food sovereignty which simply means farmers in an individual nation should have first access to supply their own country their food requirements.

There has been no permanent damage done by our enemies that cannot be undone if we the people work together both domestically and internationally. Remember, it is less than 1% of our population that is causing all of us these problems.

Published in In Motion Magazine, November 30, 2002

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