RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Keeping Consumers in Line

The agribusiness pols of 180 nations met in Sacramento June 23-25 to prepare for the World Trade Organization's Cancun summit. What was on the table at this US Department of Agriculture-contrived feast? Everything you'll eat in the future: genetically modified organisms, fish-farmed salmon, confined animal feeding operation-raised pork, synthetic ingredients, subsidies for farmers. What was missing? Labeling.

Interesting to speculate on the dialogue between these Ministers of Trade, Agriculture, and Environment. It might have gone something like this:

France: Our farmers are really angry. They want to raise the crops we've always been known for -- like Roquefort cheese and Champagne. Something about family and tradition.

US: Angry farmers? Get rid of them. We've said it since the '70s: Get big or get out. Bigger tractors. Bigger fields. In 30 years, we've whittled our farm population down to 2% of the total. And that 2% is in so much debt they just scheme around trying to figure out how to work the system -- like that could happen -- and make their payments. They don't have time to pay attention to policy.

Brazil: In South America, the Indians are mad, too.

US: Arrest 'em on the grounds that they might be anti-government terrorists. What you guys need is an alarm system. Red for danger, Green for everything's OK. Just bounce it around every morning. "Hey, peasants, it's orange! Be alert!"

China: Works for us. But the environmentalists are getting powerful.

England: You could ...

US: Discredit them. Easiest thing in the world. Science is an imperfect story, full of contradictions. Quote the Bible.

China: Bible?

US: Oh. I forgot. Well, quote Buddha, or Confucius, or whatever. You guys aren't Islamicists, are you?

Italy: About that Bible idea -- the Pope's pretty upset about fast food. Says it hurts the family.

England: Point of order. The subject is agriculture, not religion. Japan wants the floor.

Japan: In our country, the consumers are all riled up.

US: That's hilarious. Sort of like saying the consumers on an isolated island have the right to say what comes onto the island. Laughable. Here's what you do: Run more ads and op-eds. Take over the media and say how eco-friendly the new biotech foods are, how we've learned from our past mistakes with confined animal feeding operations, how we've cleaned up the packing plants and un-de-beaked the itty-bitty chickens, how we're going to add less sugar and more vitamins. Find some doctor to sign on.

England: Jolly good.

US: I see it's time for me to make an impassioned speech, and then we can all go to the bar. See, you guys are all getting distracted and forgetting that trade is valuable. No, it's more than that. Trade is the highest value. More valuable than tradition, independence, or centuries of written law. Trade agreements -- that's what makes the wheels move, that's the most important thing, because trade is valuable. Trade means cheap labor, an end to environmental protections, an end to human preferences -- that's what we're here for. Let's remember that.

England: Here, here (applauds loudly).

Brazil, China, Japan, and others: But who's going to be able to use the trade items if everyone's broke and sick? Even the rich people -- how will they benefit?

US: You people are so backwards, it's like there's no dealing with you. Don't any of you have American educations?

England: Gentlemen, please, you're getting the US upset, and you know what happens when they're upset. Is there a motion to end the meeting?

OK. That's not what happened.

Really, they met and they used very high-sounding language and they smiled gravely and looked each other in the eye and nodded sagely, solving the problems of tariffs and such. They came to the meeting ready to eliminate subsidies, which is the same as bankrupting the system that keeps land in the hands of citizens rather than corporations.

But we won't know what they said because there are no public transcripts of their meetings, no citizen input and no appeal to their decisions.

We, the subjects and taxpayers of this new world order, have no voice at the table. We can't ban the import of items made with child labor or crops raised with DDT. When we ask for labeling on GMOs, even country-of-origin labeling, we're told that's anti-trade. Anti-trade, in WTO language, means illegal. No law now? The next Congress will pass one.

These multi-national trade agreements have no allegiance to governments or people -- only to the corporations that benefit by trade. Their only desire is accumulate resources-the earth's resources -- and wealth.

And, with our purchases, we make them run. We give them the wealth.

What can we do? Push our chairs back from the international table. Find local sources for the things you need: Farmers to grow your meat and vegetables the way you want it, bakers to make your bread. Support your independent media. Carpool. Learn to barter, join a credit union and cancel your bank account. Pay off your loans and don't borrow unless it's absolutely necessary.

By keeping money in our local communities, we can build power.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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