5.08.2015

Unfair Trade
Food Issues Book Club - Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 3

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and/or my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Stuffed and Starved, Chapter 3: You Have Become Mexican

(This is a really long, detailed chapter about trade agreements.  tl/dr: Trade agreements suck for most farmers and for consumers, and they're a driving force in Mexicans' (and likely others') emigration to the US.)

Summary:

Mexico's government has frequently been among the frontrunners in exploring free trade agreements, particularly with regard to food.  As such, its farmers are all too often on the losing end, allowing them to find solidarity with other such afflicted farmers around the world.  After South Korean farmer Lee Kyung Hae's suicide, believed to be the result of WTO influence, Mexico's campesinos (peasant farmers) chanted "Lee, hermano, te has hecho Mexicano" (Lee, brother, you have become Mexican).

As a case study of the effects of trade agreements on farmers, we will look at the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), enacted in 1994.  Its primary effect was to lift tariffs among Canada, the US, and Mexico.  While a minor percentage of Mexican farmers have broken into the US market as a result of the agreement, the majority of its small farmers (who make up 85% of Mexico's farms) are suffering beneath its weight.  This is due primarily to NAFTA's treatment of Mexico's main crop: corn.

NAFTA allowed US-produced corn, which was much cheaper due to subsidization and economies of scale, to flood into the Mexican market free of its previous tariffs.  Mexican farmers grew more corn in response - to try to sell more corn to make up for the drop in price.  Despite the laws of supply and demand, which would dictate that less of a commodity be produced as its price drops, farmers cannot easily switch from one crop to another and frequently have few or no other employment options.  "Lacking money, technology, and access to distribution networks, already relegated to the poorest-quality soil, without irrigation, and with indigenous corn so well suited to these conditions, there was little else farmers could do."

Though ostensibly designed to reduce the price of goods for consumers, fair trade agreements tend to have the opposite effect.  For example, while NAFTA reduced corn prices in Mexico (via the aforementioned flood), it increased the price of corn tortillas - the product in which most corn is sold and eaten in Mexico - by seven fold within five years of enactment.  This is but one demonstration that it is food processors, not consumers, that benefit from raw commodity price drops.  Far from being beneficial for farmers or consumers, "[a]s a result of NAFTA, 1.3 million Mexican farmers were forced off of their land.  The flood of labor into the cities caused a 10% drop in industrial wages.  Female headed households have seen their poverty rate increase by 50%."  So, why would the Mexican government enter an agreement that was sure to have such devastating effects on its populace?

Simply put, the US mindset had come to Mexico, becoming thoroughly embedded in the 1980s (during the Reagan administration).  US-trained economists replaced Mexican-educated government officials and brought neoliberal values with them.  Similar to the US, this led to massive budget cuts and slashed social supports during times of economic hardship.  The one area in which the economy was able to grow was in agricultural exports.  Allied with the largest businesses - those that stood to benefit - Mexico's "liberalized" government negotiated NAFTA's and its impact on agricultural products, making agreements on food trade that even the US warned against.

"The negotiation of NAFTA represented a shift away from a commitment, however fragile, to poor people's livelihoods and towards a technocratic arrangement designed to benefit the extremely wealthy."  In the years after its enactment, the campesinos fought to stay in the countryside and continue their way of life.  Many participated in huge demonstrations against the banks and powerful entities that had begun making their lives untenable.  And yet they continued to be forced to move away due to financial unsustainability, toward cities or even to the US.  "With [Mexican] government policy tilted firmly against them, Mexican migrants found themselves not only pushed off their land, but pulled forcefully to the United States."

Mexican immigrants now send over US$20 billion back to Mexico from the US each year - they have found a way to redistribute the US's concentration of wealth, if only slightly.  This movement is representative of a worldwide trend of workers leaving the countrysides of the Global South to find work in richer cities "up north."  "Those who are able to migrate across international borders are profoundly important in keeping their home countries, their families, and their communities alive."

The workers who do find employment in the US also find abuse, however.  "Workers entering the country in desperate circumstances are vulnerable to exploitation, and there has been no shortage of those willing to sink to the task."  United Farm Workers (UFW) and other organizing groups that followed have long fought for farm workers' basic human rights, but little progress has been made.

Those legally employed endure long hours, low wages, and unsafe working conditions.  Undocumented laborers suffer these but with even lower wages, as well as the constant threat of deportation.  When their status is discovered it is they, and not their employers (who have often employed undocumented workers because they can be paid less and can't safely complain about conditions), who are punished.  "[W]ith few exceptions, the era of trade agreements has also been the era of increasing inequality."

Discussion:

OMG THIS IS REAGAN'S FAULT TOO!  OK, only kinda.  Not really.  Whatever I'm blaming him anyway. It's got his taint allll over it.

For all that this chapter says, I have little to add to it.  There's one passage, though, that you need to read for yourself, verbatim, that sums up its spirit beautifully:
"On the Mexican side of this patrolled invisible divide, things have changed quite dramatically.  At the interface of rich and poor countries, there certainly has been increased employment and job creation.  But, again, it is those already in positions of relative power who have benefited at the border.  The success of men with land and wealth in the horticulture industry stands in bleak contrast to the fates of hundreds of women, predominantly those working in the foreign-owned factories brought by NAFTA, who have been killed in Ciudad Juarez, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, on the border with the United States.  It is through their bodies that the charge of the free market has been grounded."
Holy shit Raj Patel, that is some heartbreaking poetry right there.

This chapter ends with a brief mention of the South Central Farm, which ended in one of the more egregious actions against farmers / Latino community members that California has ever seen (and that is really, really saying something).  Rather than talk about it more here (since I've previously written quite, uh, excitedly about what happened there) I suggest you watch the documentary about it.  I have a copy!  Come on over!  I'll make some (organic fair trade) popcorn with (vegan) butter.  :)

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