By Elena Day
The Obama administration continues to press for Congressional passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The trade deal will increase corporate control over a world in which national governments (including our own) are beholden to multinational corporations. Consumers and workers are increasingly denied health, safety and environmental protections. Governments fail to challenge the World Trade Organization (WTO), which decides in secret tribunals whether food safety and environmental and workplace regulations are “illegal” barriers to trade.
What might ensue with the TPP for citizens of the signatory countries—the U.S., Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam—could make Pandora’s box look like a picnic basket.
Current China /U.S. agricultural trade gives a “foretaste.” China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Entry into the WTO was the reward for opening up its internal markets to U.S.-manufactured goods in a trade deal negotiated by the Clinton administration in 1999. Other U.S/China bilateral trade pacts were negotiated and implemented.
Within the ten years of entry into the WTO, China’s agricultural sector became significantly industrialized. Pesticide and chemical fertilizer use increased 25 percent between 2000 and 2007 and China became a leading food exporter. In the same period (by 2005), the U.S. became a net food importer.
By 2009 70 percent of the apple juice, 43 percent of processed mushrooms, 22 percent of frozen spinach and 78 percent of tilapia that Americans ate came from China. By 2007 90 percent of Vitamin C supplements were imported from China. In 2010 China sold us 88 million pounds of candy.
Gilroy, California, is no longer the “Garlic Capital of the World.” After China joined the WTO, U.S. garlic production decreased by one-third. Previously, U.S. growers supplied 70 percent of the garlic Americans consumed.
China dominates the world honey market and is our single greatest honey source. Its honey is regularly found to be contaminated with antibiotics.
China, the world’s leading seafood producer, supplied 25 percent of U.S. seafood imports, amounting to 1 billion lbs., in 2010. Chinese fish farmers (and farmers) use pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, including banned chemicals that are easily obtainable in China.
Since WTO rules are such that trade always trumps food safety, U.S. food manufacturers find it easier to source ingredients from China, where labor costs are lower and enforcement of safety regulations lax or nonexistent. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been overwhelmed by Chinese food imports and currently inspects less than 2 percent of all imported foodstuffs. China’s food safety problems quickly ensconced themselves on American grocery shelves.
The most memorable food safety debacle China exported to the U.S. was melamine contamination of pet food products in 2007. Melamine killed thousands of pets in the U.S. and was found in Mars, Heinz and Cadbury products. In China, melamine-contaminated milk products sickened hundreds of thousands of infants.
Melamine is a chemical byproduct of coal processing used in the manufacture of plastics, adhesives and insulation. In China it is used illegally to make food products appear to have a higher protein content so that they can be sold for a higher price. In the U.S., 60,000,000 packages of pet food contaminated with melamine were recalled. Some was redirected to hog farms. Hogs that consumed the melamine-laced pet food were destroyed but not before 56,000 hogs were processed into pork products.
Melamine continues to show up as a contaminant in food products in China, although a less detectable protein enhancer is also in use: hydrolyzed leather protein made from scraps of animal skin.
While U.S. consumers feed on uninspected Chinese agricultural products and processed foods, China imports our Roundup Ready soy for its poultry and hog farms. The shift from pastured livestock to factory farms since joining the WTO has increased Chinese meat consumption and concurrently obesity is becoming a problem. In 2010 Kentucky Fried Chicken (Yum! Brands) was opening a new restaurant in China every 18 hours and purchasing 25 percent of all chicken produced. In 2010 Yum! Brands earned 36 percent of its total profits from 3,299 KFCs and 500 Pizza Huts in China.
Other introductions by U.S. corporate interests include PepsiCo beverage plants, food processing plants and farms. PepsiCo has become the largest potato grower in China. The potatoes are manufactured into Lay’s brand potato chips.
The TPP is a trade model similar to that which we have with China. Under the TPP, U.S. food safety rules on pesticides and additives higher than international standards would be subject to challenge as “illegal” trade barriers. Under threat of trade sanctions, the U.S. would be required to allow unsafe food into our country.
TPP imposes limits on labeling origins of food products, again as a “trade barrier.” Labels identifying how foods are produced or whether foods are genetically modified can be challenged under TPP. It’s clear that “barriers to trade,” read this as “the right to make as much money as possible even if one’s product is tainted or undermines traditional local agriculture,” must be eliminated. U.S. food safety standards will be required to fall to the lowest common denominator.
I can’t help but call to mind the Money song from the musical Cabaret. “Money makes the world go round, it’s such a happy sound” for Monsanto and Cargill and Bayer and Nestles and Chinese industry and for the Taiwanese corporation Formosa that built a state of the art steel plant in Vietnam. In April 2016, Formosa’s wastewater pipe into the sea resulted in a massive fish kill and contamination of an area highly dependent on fish farming as well as wild caught tuna harvesting. According to a Formosa spokesperson, the local communities needed to consider whether they valued marine life or foreign investment. With TPP, Vietnamese (and Malaysia) seafood exports to the U.S. will soar, whether contaminated or not.
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Regarding asparagus, one topic in last month’s column, I recently spoke to a thirty-something woman who had grown up in Kalispell, Montana, nearby to Glacier National Park. She spoke of gathering wild asparagus in the spring. It was abundant and in some areas almost invasive. “No one ever thought of going to the store to buy it,” she recalled. My husband then remembered that his father had told him of he and his siblings competing to find asparagus in the spring. Whoever brought in asparagus first was rewarded with a quarter. Asparagus hunters make mental note of the location of browned fronds in fall and winter and then seek the emerging stalks in spring. Finding wild asparagus must be as exciting as finding morels.