Letter from Langdon: Farmers Pay the Cost of ‘Free’ Trade
The Trans Pacific trade pact promises us cheaper food with sketchier ingredients. American farmers will face upheaval and more dislocation, while corporate agriculture thrives.
If China assembles my Apple iPhone with its global mixture of ingredients, shouldn’t Asians at least eat Washington apples? Maybe not while China produces nine times as many apples as the U.S.
And if my chore tractor came from Italy, (Europe is where most small farm tractors are manufactured today) shouldn’t Italians buy my corn?. Probably not, while they’re the eighth largest corn grower in the world.
That brings U.S. farmers to another crossroads, having bought into the idea that to be successful and make a lot of money, we need full unfettered access to consumers around the world. But those consumers, almost without exception, would rather have food grown at home. Their farmers want it that way too.
Maybe that’s why we’ve been told the answer to consumer resistance is trade agreements like Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) that lock trading partners into commitments to buy stuff no matter what. Those agreements always seem to come with a few years of doing business the old way, giving our best new buddies protection and a chance to adapt to doing business the new way. But, as is too often the case, by the time new markets are phased in, they’ve already disappeared via geopolitical corporate hustles and revalued currencies.
It’s pretty nigh onto impossible to pick up the family farm and move it one piece at a time, the way industry seems to do. We’ve already seen how easy it is to set up manufacturing plants in Asia or Mexico for everything from cars and washing machines to cotton T-shirts. And while benefits to farms are always touted, most of the trade agreements we farmers are exhorted to support are already designed to aid floating factories around the world owned by shadow companies looking for cheap labor and ingredients, a tax break, and easily adjustable money.
Farmers are no strangers to market access. Over the years we’ve seen markets come and go via embargoes, farm programs, or transformed into world trade deals more about whipping us than helping us. That’s the way it’s gone for poultry and hog farmers in America as corporations have cemented themselves into virtually every aspect of production from eggs and artificial insemination, chicks and pigs, all the way up to fresh wrapped meat in the grocer’s case.
Monopolies like those have come to be viewed by leaders (who most of us unenthusiastically refer to as politicians) as just another cost of doing business for highly efficient “agriculture.”
But here lately, one of the biggest costs to one efficient branch of U.S. “agriculture” has been a virus called PED, short for porcine epidemic diarrhea. First discovered in Europe, PED spread through Asia mysteriously finding its way to America and Canada. After years of searching for the source, USDA now attributes PED’s origins, responsible for killing 8 million baby pigs in the U.S., to contaminated shipping bags used to deliver bulk commodities to the U.S. from – take a wild guess – our trading partners in Asia.
Now USDA has approved chicken imports from China. And beef from South America, even though parts of countries there still harbor the scourge of cattlemen everywhere, hoof and mouth disease. That one microscopic bug can wipe out an American beef herd faster than you can say “shipping container.”
But, we’re told, it will be good for “agriculture.”
Instead of facing the truth of policies favoring cheap commodities and cheaper food ingredients for corporate processors, “agriculture” as a whole talks about broad benefits to America and rural communities through profitable farms with access to global markets.
More times than not we’ve seen rural population centers, those clusters of agrarian association that once served as our support group, eroded by indifference or failure to understand the real meaning of the words “sustainability” and “community.”
These days instead of coming from Main Street, most of the things big farms buy come from tens or hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. Communities have gotten smaller, farms have gotten bigger, and the roads that hook us all together have gotten longer.
So when we hear that global corporate aggregators of all things bought and sold are good for “agriculture,” we farmers tend to think that means us. The problem is that we are only one small step, the bottom rung, of a long and torturous climb to consumers everywhere. Calling us “agriculture” is a little like calling an engine the whole car. But it’s the engine that makes the whole thing go. And when we consider money collected along the way, the best any farmer can hope for is maybe 15 cents on the dollar.
That leaves a lot of benefit to “agriculture” up for grabs.
Many times it is actions by agriculture as a whole that leads to problems on the family farm when trade and other government deals hurt us through importation of disease, contaminated food, or perhaps just a market manipulating higher corporate power holding no compassion for us, our consumers, or perhaps the world in general.
That’s what happens when everyone forgets that the agriculture we hear so much about in America isn’t always family farms, but all the gigantic corporations surrounding us, doing what they do for better or sometimes worse.
When billion dollar trade deals are at stake, it’s that blurring of the line between us and them that makes it difficult for family farmers to be heard. So when agriculture and unfair free-trade deals are debated in Congress later this year or the next, keep in mind that most importantly to us, family farmers feed America.
The “Agriculture” they’ll all be talking about isn’t who we are, but it’s certainly what we do.
Richard Oswald, president the Missouri Farmers Union, is a fifth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri. “Letter From Langdon” is a regular feature of The Daily Yonder.