RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Restoring Losses from Trade Deals

I’ve been watching the Korean free-trade agreement for the last year, ever since I met representatives of the Korean Peasant Farmers’ League when they travelled to Washington, D.C., to talk to Congress. As they saw it, Kor-US (Korea-US) would destroy their way of life, their culture, and even their land. After centuries of farming, these villages see themselves as stewards of the lands of their ancestors.

Their sense of place is in sharp contrast to the industrial system, practiced here in the US, where we see land as a resource to be depleted of resources. Rather than farm for centuries, we have devised a system that only lasts a few decades before our land is desert.

Kor-US, a Bush-era agreement, was conceived at a time when global warming denial was in fashion in the government and when nobody would admit that the fountains of petroleum would someday run dry. Those days are over, and Kor-US, along with other agreements before Congress, should be gone.

In fact, Korean farmers have allies in their government who agree that the trade agreement will destroy their rural economy. As reported by Yonhap, a Korean press outlet, “The implementation of the signed free trade agreement (FTA) with the United States will likely cause billions of dollars in damages to South Korea’s farming industry, a government report showed ... According to the report from the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the Korea-US FTA will lead to a reduction of 12.67 trillion won ($10.5 billion) in production by the country’s agricultural, farming and fisheries industries in the next 15 years.”

In fact, disruption of the local food system is part of the whole point of these free trade agreements. The agreements allow multinational food companies to provide cheap food to new urban folks, with little or no tariffs, and put their farmers out of business. After that happens, rural people are displaced, moving to the cities, providing manufacturers in those places with cheap labor to build manufactured goods. You know what I mean — cars, computers, cell phones, toasters, steel girders. It’s impossible to imagine that American agriculture can balance that trade deficit. But, for the industrial system, Kor-US and the other new trade agreements present a win/win situation.

Kor-US would be the largest trade agreement since NAFTA, and we know how that turned out. But Kor-US has even worse implications, food-wise, for people on both sides of the ocean. It’s a net loss in food security, making Korea dependent for food on a producer far away. And, for American consumers, it’s a net loss in production, putting us in the position of other banana republics—with our land raising food for people in other places rather than for our own neighbors. This at a time when grain prices reach historic highs one day, then plunge, based on the whims of speculators in the food and ethanol industries. Clearly, the new trade agreements should be ditched, and American farmers should get to work re-building a system that feeds our nation, letting Koreans maintain the one that has worked for them. But, instead, multinational corporations pretend that these agreements will result in jobs.

What kind of jobs? Well, the promise here in Missouri was for more warehouses. The grand plan, promoted by Gov. Jay Nixon (D) and finally rejected by the Missouri General Assembly, called for tax incentives for builders of warehouses around St. Louis Lambert Field. The scheme, dubbed “Aerotropolis,” would have cancelled housing incentives for poor and elderly Missourians to relieve warehouse owners of taxes as they tore down residential neighborhoods around the airport and replaced them with acres of warehouses. At first, the governor claimed that the warehouses would export pork to Asia. Korea would serve as a stepping stone to exports to China.

When critics pointed out that more pork would require building more Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, which would bring more pollution, the story changed. The new story said they were hoping Missouri could become a giant transfer station for goods on their way from China to Europe and Africa. This story made about the same sense as the pork story.

A statement by Arthur Stamoulis, Executive Director, Citizens Trade Campaign, sums it up neatly: “Nobody honestly believes that the proposed free trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama are job creation plans. Nearly two decades of lived experience under NAFTA, not to mention the federal government’s own studies, shows that these pacts will become significant job-killers if enacted. These deals are about corporate greed, plain and simple.”

Job killers, yes, for Americans. And, for Koreans, the trade agreements mean the death of things even more important, but perhaps unmeasurable — ancestry, tradition, stewardship of the land. Satisfaction with one’s own lot.

These losses may not be measurable in dollars and cents, but they are losses just the same.

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

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2011

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