Battling "Free Trade" | Pesticide Action Network
Reclaiming the future of food and farming

Battling "Free Trade"

A sweet pepper imported into Europe carries residues of pesticides long banned on the continent. Grain grown in the U.S. is dumped in Mexico, displacing thousands from their lands and livelihoods. Trade rules matter.

Millions of barrels of pesticides are traded in the global marketplace, recirculating as residue on food and fiber. Tackling this “circle of poison” has galvanized PAN activists around the globe since the network’s early days. 

Yet the global trade in pesticides is just one example of how so-called “free trade” undermines a just and healthy food system.  

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Global markets, local harms

For those of us who believe in a food system that ensures rights for workers, protections for local communities and a healthy environment, agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have been bearers of terrible news. NAFTA flooded the Mexican economy with US-grown corn and pork, displacing thousands of Mexican farmers and driving down wages.

Globalization of agricultural markets kicked into high gear in the 1990s: strategic grain reserves were eliminated, price floors and ceilings were dismantled and other public supports for farmers were stripped away under new trade rules. 

The result: farmers and communities in the U.S. and around the world were exposed to market forces that — despite promises to the contrary — took jobs and fair wages from farmers and workers, and made poverty and hunger worse. In Mexico, for example, the extreme rural poverty rate jumped 15 percent in the two years after NAFTA’s implementation.

Racing to the bottom

Free trade agreements are now a mainstay of international policy. Historically, such agreements have aimed to dismantle tariffs, taxes on imports designed to protect domestically-produced goods from global competition. But today, most of these tariffs have already been slashed. 

A new round of agreements are targeting regulations rather than tariffs or other economic aspects of international trade. The controversial Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are designed to move policies to the lowest common denominator. That means if one trade party has a more stringent law than the other, the least protective law becomes the law of both lands.  

What does this mean for public health? The herbicide atrazine provides a stark example. Because use is still allowed in the U.S., a “race to the bottom” trade agreement could open up markets for the chemical in European countries — where it’s been banned since 2003 due to strong health concerns.

"Free trade" for pesticides?

This new generation of trade agreements sets policy changes in motion that put the interests of multi-national corporations ahead of all else, stripping away protections that social movements across the world have won — including progress on pesticides. 

In negotiation of the TTIP for example, CropLife and the European Crop Protection Association — lobbying groups for the Big 6 — have pressed hard for trade rules that would weaken action on endocrine disrupting pesticides, roll back bans on bee-harming neonicotinoids and loosen rules on food residues.  

Meanwhile, the global trade in pesticide products continues. According to the Environmental Protection Agency's most recent data, U.S. corporations export an estimated 30 million pounds of pesticides a year, worth more than $2 billion.  

With such a lucrative global market on the line, the pesticide industry is eager to support the regulatory race to the bottom.

Fair trade, food democracy

In the 1980s, PAN brought the “Circle of Poison” problem to international policy debates and proposed a specific solution: governments should have the right to refuse imports of pesticides that have been banned in other countries.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization took up the idea and set up a notification procedure for banned chemicals. In 1998, the voluntary process became international law when the Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent (PIC) was signed. The PIC Treaty, now adopted by more than 130 countries, has helped stem the tide of banned chemical "dumping."

Fair trade and food democracy continue to gain strength in global civil society, alongside fierce opposition to the “race to the bottom” trade regimes. Here in the U.S., PAN stands alongside partners like Public Citizen, Grassroots International, National Family Farm Coalition, the US Food Sovereignty Alliance and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy as we call for an end to unjust systems of trade.

GroundTruth Blog: News and happenings from the frontlines of the movement for fair food & farming.

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