Oregonians ‘Mad as Hell’ About Trade Deals That Threaten Their Food Supply

Oregonians ‘Mad as Hell’ About Trade Deals That Threaten Their Food Supply

    Sen. Ron Wyden speaks with reporters on Capitol Hill. (AP / Harry Hamburg)

In the 1976 film “Network,” a news anchor, played by the late actor Peter Finch, urges his television audience to open their windows and shout the infamous phrase, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

According to people I’ve talked to on the ground in Oregon, that may be something close to what many residents there are feeling right now. But instead of shouting out the window, Oregonians are petitioning and phoning their senator, Ron Wyden, to ask him to oppose granting so-called fast track authority to President Obama.

Granting that authority would allow the president to speed two dangerous international trade pacts through Congress, and Wyden, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Finance, is a critically important figure whose support will help assure the passage of the agreements—known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP.

Negotiated over the last five years with the input of multinational corporations, the trade deals would supersede U.S. sovereignty and law by establishing a bureaucracy empowered to overrule national and local laws and regulations—including those governing food safety; animal welfare and food-toxics protections; and labeling for genetically modified, or GMO, foods—if corporations can show their requirements are “barriers to trade.”

In addition, via the TPP’s Investor-State Dispute Settlement provisions, corporations would gain the right to sue national and local governments for millions if they can prove to a trio of corporate attorneys that local laws would deprive them of future profits.

Fast track—expected to be introduced in the Senate when Congress returns on April 13—is legislation that would give Obama the ability to sign international trade agreements without public or congressional disclosure and without giving lawmakers the ability to debate or amend the agreements. If fast track passes, the passage of the two trade agreements is widely regarded as a done deal.

All of this troubles Oregonians concerned about food, health and the environment because Wyden is being heavily wooed by the finance committee chairman, Senator Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, to co-sponsor the fast track bill. According to Lori Wallach, director of Global Trade Watch, the bill can be sold as bipartisan if Wyden supports it, a point that the president is likely to use as leverage to sway recalcitrant House Democrats.

One obstacle to this well-orchestrated attempt to bypass democracy is Wyden’s own constituency.

David Murphy, executive director of the food advocacy organization Food Democracy Now! and a member of the steering committee of Oregon Right to Know, said: “Last year Oregonians witnessed firsthand what it’s like to have out-of-state corporations interfere with their laws when chemical and biotech seed giants like Monsanto and DuPont spent more than $21 million to narrowly defeat the popular citizen-led GMO labeling initiative Measure 92.”

Whatever one’s views on GMOs, this particular defeat made publicly visible how corporate dollars are used to influence the public and subvert democracy through television commercials.

They ran TV ads which ranged from deceptive to bold lies,” Lisa Stokke, a co-founder of Food Democracy Now!, said. “Once the ads aired, people who believe in organics, good environmental stewardship, and farm to table, were confused. The ads said that labeling would harm existing food regulations, and to illustrate that point, the ads showed the organic standards label and the non-GMO project label. This misled people to think that, ‘If I vote to label, I’m going to be hurting organic standards.’ Of course, that wasn’t true.”

The vote in Oregon was so close, there was a recount. Ultimately, even with the influx of corporate dollars, the referendum almost won. Only 837 votes out of more than 1.5 million votes cast determined the outcome. It was very clear to Oregonians that, without this intrusion on their political process, their wish to know what is in their food would have won.

“The daily barrage of ads full of lies and misinformation left many Oregonians sick of corporations trying to manipulate them,” Julia DeGraw, Northwest organizer at Food and Watch, told Truthdig. Today, as their senator stands poised to throw his considerable support to trade deals that undermine issues Oregonians are passionate about, Wyden’s constituents are savvy about agenda-driven half-truths, misleading statements and bait-and-switch promises.

Paige Richardson, campaign director of Oregon Right to Know, also spoke out against fast track, saying: “Americans have the right to know what is in our food and in these agreements.”

How Fast Track Affects Food

How exactly would fast track and the trade deals undermine a healthy food supply, food labeling and the option to make healthy food choices?

Nations in the Pacific region, covered by the TPP, have lower food-safety standards than the United States does, and Europe and the Atlantic region, covered by TTIP, have higher standards than the U.S. does. Thus, the Pacific and Atlantic agreements would each undermine the American food supply in different ways.

The TPP contains provisions that would disable “the U.S. government’s capacity to protect food safety,” William Waren, a trade policy analyst at Friends of the Earth, told Truthdig. “A tsunami of fish from Asia, farmed in filthy conditions and fed antibiotics and dangerous chemicals, would flood U.S. borders.”

Consumers would have no way to know whether a food was safe to eat “but would merely have to accept unsupported safety claims,” Waren said. “The increased volume of cheap imports would overwhelm border inspections.”

By rolling back country-of-origin labeling, the TPP will make it hard for Americans to avoid consuming fish, or other imports, that might be contaminated.

Because the more health- and safety-conscious Europeans have followed the treaty negotiations closely, Waren said, TTIP will target “lowering the EU standards, which include GMO and food labeling,” by deploying a different strategy: instituting a new system of regulatory review via “trade committee.”

In both Europe and the U.S., these trade committees would be authorized to review all food, chemical and environmental regulations.

“Before any country could define or enforce a food-safety standard, it would have to go through the review committee, manned by industry representatives, not food, health, environmental or safety experts,” according to Waren, who is privy to the provisions via disaffected insiders in Europe. The review process would give industry the authority to “roll back and kill regulations without disclosure or press coverage.”

The deciding factor would be a cost-benefit analysis, which tends to devalue things that are hard to quantify, such as health risk. “The committee would weigh profit projections against the costs of health care and the ‘price of human life,’ ” he added.

In the opinion of the longtime labor- and consumer-rights activist Ralph Nader, the whole thing is “corporate fascism.”

“This is the most historic usurpation of national authority in U.S. history,” Nader said on the weekly National Fast Track Resistance call hosted by Popular Resistance. “Foreign corporations can take our food, health and safety protections and bring us before these tribunals, and if they lose, we pay millions of dollars in compensation.”

Nader recommended that people do what Oregonians are doing. “Approach your congressperson in a very personal way,” he advised, by taking the following steps:

1. Zero in on your Senate or House member. Show up at their office with 2, 3 or 4 people. If you are left-right, it’s even better.
2. Make your case. Don’t leave until you get an answer: Are they for or against fast track?
3. Make them put their answer in writing in a letter or email.
4. If they say no, picket an office, demand a town meeting, which you can call by getting 300 names on a petition.

(People can also go to www.stopfasttrack.com and enter their zip code to quickly communicate with their elected officials via phone or email.)

Nader said that it’s essential for elected officials to read the full trade agreements despite the secrecy over their contents. He believes that many elected officials are poorly informed about the provisions and their ramifications.

Wyden, for one, has wavered over co-sponsoring the legislation but has declared himself a proponent of “free trade.”

“Don’t be fooled. This is not ‘free trade,’ ” Nader said. “This is corporate-managed, rigged trade. Fast track is an autocratic procedure. Autocratic procedures lead to autocratic results. Tell your elected officials, ‘We didn’t vote you into office to read a memo prepared by multinational corporations.’ ”