Today’s Trade Agreements Put Profits Before People

These treaties harm both farmers and consumers by squeezing food systems for maximum profit.

by Jim Goodman, board member, Family Farm Defenders, retired organic beef/dairy farmer from Wonewoc, WI

Published by the Progressive, Feb. 21, 2024

Trade agreements are part of a global economy. The United States is party to fourteen international free trade agreements involving twenty countries. Note that they are “free” trade agreements, (which, in theory, are supposed to expand marketing opportunities for producers) not “fair” trade agreements. If they were “fair” trade agreements, producers would be paid a fair price no matter where they live or what they produced. In fact, these agreements do little to increase prices to small scale farmers, or wages for workers, because they do not directly enter the global market. Rather, their work, their production is sold into a consolidated market where the profit is sucked up by the multinational corporations – all at the expense of the people. 

It is no secret that those agreements, negotiated between governments, are heavily influenced by corporate lobbyists to ensure that the regulation of pretty much everything—such as labor, food safety, the environment—will favor corporate profit above all else. And that, in sum, is the problem with free trade: a greater concern for making money than for the wellbeing of people, on both sides of the deal.

Because trade agreements cater to corporations, worker incomes are negatively impacted in both developed and developing nations. That said, the burden of these free trade agreements come to bear most heavily on the world’s poorest inhabitants. Profit comes by keeping wages low, centering pollution and environmental damage in the poorest countries, and by controlling the global food supply.

As noted by economist Joseph Stiglitz, “We could have ensured that globalization benefited all, but corporate greed was just too great.” Pitting workers around the world against each other will, of course, drive wages down—one of the results sought by multinational corporations.

Control of the food supply was another goal, paying farmers as little as possible, managing their market access through consolidation, and selling through highly consolidated consumer markets to ensure maximum profit. Financial speculation in agricultural commodities and land, volatile weather, and people’s inability to determine where and how their food would be grown only exacerbated the problems caused by unfair trade.

“Hunger isn’t caused by a scarcity of food, but a scarcity of democracy,” writes Frances Moore Lappé of the Small Planet Institute.

Did we learn anything from the global food crisis of 2007 and 2008? Apparently not the lessons we should have. When commodity food prices on international markets in some cases doubled, causing food riots and starvation, farmers saw little price increase even as multinational corporations increased their profit margins. Corporate grain and meat processors are more consolidated and still make vast profits at the expense of farmers and consumer choice. Governments still use food as a weapon whether aimed very specifically, as in Gaza, or more broadly in wars and conflicts.

Perhaps rather than allowing those who control global markets to decide who will eat, what they will eat, where their food will be grown, and who will grow it, a different more democratic approach is needed. Food Sovereignty is a concept that allows people to make decisions about their food locally, for their benefit. Under this system, farmers and farm workers are valued for what they grow and the knowledge they pass on, and nature and the environment are respected as the source of life. In defining the concept of Food Sovereignty, economist Raj Patel noted that “People could eat well only if their governments were free to adopt policies that supported domestic production and consumption.”

Let’s end this foolishness of “feeding the world” a Western diet just because it’s profitable. Give peasant farmers, Indigenous farmers, and farmers of color the ability to farm their own land and feed their own communities. Loss of local control through “land grabs” worldwide holds small farmers and their communities captive in the global food economy.

Similarly, let local fisher folk have access to fishing grounds and the fair market access that is increasingly being denied through “ocean grabbing.” Whether in the Americas or off the Horn of Africa, local fisher folk are denied the right to make a living and feed their communities.

Resistance to corporate domination of food, unfair trade agreements, and efforts to protect food producers and consumers is gaining traction even in the partisan, grid-locked halls of Congress. The ARCTIC Act, introduced by Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, supports Alaska’s farmers, fishers, and local food. And a rare bipartisan effort, mandatory country of origin labeling (MCOOL) sponsored by U.S. Senators John Thune, Republican of South Dakota; Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana; Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota; and Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey gives farmers and ranchers the right to use a United States “country of origin” label. Acts like these can begin to give people a connection to their food and those that produce it. People want and need to be part of a community that supports everyone.

Undoubtedly, corporate lobbyists are busily mounting their opposition to both acts because they protect local farmers, ranchers, fishers, and food systems—rather than corporate profit. Officially, Canada and Mexico previously filed disputes against U.S. Country of Origin labels on meat, and no doubt will again. Conversely, U.S. trade negotiators have filed a dispute against Canada for protecting their dairy farmers against U.S. dairy imports, as well as a dispute against Mexico for protecting Mexican farmers and consumers against U.S. imports of genetically modified (GM) corn.

Maybe the United States should stop forcing unwanted dairy into Canada and GM corn into both countries. Then Mexico might let U.S. farmers and ranchers label their meat so consumers could choose U.S.-grown meat. Seems like a win for food producers and consumers in all three countries. 

And all of these measures are permissible within the text of the U.S.- Mexico-Canada trade agreement.

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Food is Not a Weapon – Family Farm Defenders Solidarity Statement on Gaza Feb. 14th, 2024

The human right to food is sacred and protected under international law. Family Farm Defenders maintains the principles of food sovereignty, including the right to food, as a guide to our response to ongoing and escalating violence, destruction, and loss of life in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel.

Therefore, in good conscience, we must speak up now, joining the millions of voices from around the world who are calling for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the suffering and starvation that is being inflicted on the civilian population of Gaza.

Family Farm Defenders is proud to be part of a global movement advocating for food justice and human rights. John Kinsman, one of our founders, was a tireless champion of civil rights, social justice, and food sovereignty both in the US and around the world. As he once stated, “the seven principles of food sovereignty are the finest recipe for global food, social and environmental justice that exist today.”

Due to decades of occupation and restrictions imposed by Israel, the ability of Palestinian farmers, fishers, and pastoralists to feed their people, has been greatly diminished.

Since the horrific attacks on Israeli communities on October 7, 2023, Israel’s military response, with US support, has created a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Medical supplies, food, clean water, and energy are all in very short supply. The ongoing bombardments and attacks have shattered the lives of its 2.3 million residents and killed over 28,000.

Food production and distribution has been severely affected. In addition to United Nations agencies, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC), a winner of the USFSA Food Sovereignty Prize in 2014 and member of La Via Campesina, has created a “Stop Gaza Starvation” campaign. Members have put their own lives at risk to provide food and other supplies.

Even so, the situation is increasingly dire, marked by widespread hunger, relentless blockades, and continuous bombardment.

In January, the International Court of Justice ruled Israel must take all possible measures to prevent acts of genocide. La Via Campesina stated that “this ICJ decision is an initial step in holding the occupation accountable for its heinous crimes and unprecedented use of starvation as a weapon in its war against civilians in Gaza.”

For the people of Gaza, time is running out.

In fact, now, in early February 2024, instead of responding to the ICJ ruling to prevent genocide, Israel is ramping up its attacks and has begun to implement plans for a ground invasion of the last “safe zone” – Rafah – which has become a massive refugee camp. Experts are warning of a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza with millions of people facing starvation, the cruelty of which is unimaginable.

Family Farm Defenders recognizes our responsibility to speak for peace and justice, for food sovereignty, and for human rights. We call on the United States government to demand an immediate ceasefire, the safe release of all hostages and political prisoners, and the stoppage of its own military support to any country or entity violating international law. Our government must end its imperialist ambitions and join the global community, accepting its humanitarian duty, and work toward a just and lasting peace in all regions of the world. Ceasefire, now!

For those interested in supporting food assistance to folks in Gaza, we suggest donating to: 

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Farmers Need Better Policy, Not To Export More

Increasing exports will not keep farmers in business. Legislators can help farmers by inserting policies that would help them into the Farm Bill.

By: Anthony Pahnke, Vice President of Family Farm Defenders and and Associate Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University

Originally published by the Progressive, Jan. 19, 2024

“We had to. We feed the world.”

This is what my grandfather told me when describing why we made changes to our farm over the years, whether it was replacing horses with tractors, learning how to apply the latest pesticide technology to reduce weeds or buying more cows for our herd.

The mantra instilled into us by elites was to produce, produce, produce.

Farmers like us heeded the call as we increasingly sent our products to other countries. In 1990, just over $45 billion dollars in sales came from overseas, which soared to more than $196 billion in 2022— a record year.

But here’s the rub—increasing exports will not keep farmers in business.

Just look at the dairy sector. 

Wisconsin ranked second in the country—behind California—for most dairy farm bankruptcies from 2000 to 2019. The dairy state held the dubious distinction of being home to the greatest number of farm bankruptcies in 2019 and 2020 before leveling off in 2022. During roughly that same time from 2003 to 2021, according to the US Dairy Export Council, dairy exports steadily increased.

These facts should make our legislators rethink how their policies affect farmers.

A group of congressional representatives recently sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai denouncing the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) dispute settlement ruling that continues to allow the Canadian government to limit dairy imports into their market. 

Central to the USMCA, a product of former President Donald Trump’s efforts to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, involved ensuring increased access to Canadian markets for U.S. dairy exports. A 2022 decision by the same panel sided with the United States, ruling that Canada was unfairly protecting its dairy industry. As a result, our neighbors to the north made changes to improve market access for U.S. interests. The more recent ruling holds that such changes are sufficient.

Still, there are larger issues here.

Our legislators shouldn’t pit our country’s farmers against their counterparts on the other side of the border. In 2018, Wisconsin farmers showed considerable interest in partnering with Canadian producers to implement their supply management system, which stabilizes prices for dairy farmers by controlling production and coordinating supply with demand. And while Trump was renegotiating NAFTA, a coalition of farmer advocacy groups noted that the opening of Canadian markets to U.S. exports would have no significant positive economic impact on American dairies.  

Instead, rather than scapegoating Canadians, our lawmakers can actually help farmers by inserting policies that would help them into the Farm Bill.  This massive piece of legislation that governs most facets of our food system, including dairy, is set to expire in September of this year.   

One such policy is the National Family Farm Coalition’s Milk from Family Dairies Act, which has been endorsed by ninety-four food, farm, environmental, and labor organizations and includes provisions that would adjust the prices that farmers are paid based off of their cost of production, establish import and export controls and strengthen regional dairy infrastructure to balance supply with demand to create fair, competitive markets. 

My family changed our farm to increase production and feed the world. Our exports increased. But time has made clear that this approach doesn’t work for most farmers. Our legislators need to take this opportunity to get our own house in order by getting behind policies that could assure farmers fair prices rather than repeating past mistakes.

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Family Farm Defenders strongly opposes AB 897. Sale of home-made baked goods should be promoted – not hindered- by the state!

To: WI State Legislators and Gov. Tony Evers 1/16/2024

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Family Farm Defenders strongly opposes AB 897. Sale of home-made baked goods should be promoted – not hindered- by the state.

As a national family farm organization with over 500 members alone across Wisconsin, Family Farm Defenders wishes to express its strong opposition to AB 897 and other efforts to curtail and restrict the ability of small scale rural producers to sell their home baked goods. In particular, we are against AB 897’s proposed gross sales threshold of $20,000. While many WI home bakers do not have that level of sales, others do – and this seems to be a crude attempt to marginalize small-scale rural entrepreneurs in favor of much larger and more profitable agribusiness operations.

Rural farm families are continuing to struggle to make ends meet across our state, and the ability to produce and market value-added baked goods is one critical survival option for households who are on edge as to whether they can remain on the land, serving their community, or have to go bankrupt.

We have hundreds of farmer members in WI who are now able to supplement their often quite humble income with sales of high quality home-made baked goods, many of which rely on fresh ingredients from their very own farms. We have heard from many folks that this economic opportunity is not only a financial benefit for their own family, but also helps to build a more vibrant local food/farm system with consumer dollars remaining and multiplying in our regional economy – rather than being exported out of state or even abroad. Furthermore, the ability of home bakers to persist and thrive in WI is an integral part of our culinary tradition and agro-tourism appeal.

Once again, we urge our elected officials to oppose AB 897. Instead, the legislature and the governor should be providing more support for expanded cottage production of baked goods and other home-made value-added products through the Buy Local Buy Wisconsin program and other DATCP efforts.

Here are links to contact your WI Legislators and the WI Governor:

Family Farm Defenders is a member of the WI Cottage Food Association. For more info, visit

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This holiday season, let’s make our politics honor food’s sacred nature

By Jim Goodman and Anthony Pahnke (NFFC president and FFD vice president)

Published in the Chicago Tribune, Dec 25, 2023

Food is sacred.

Regardless of one’s religious views, there is something special about people coming together at this time of year to share a meal with loved ones. We take the time and labor to enjoy some distinctive plates, whether it’s tamales and pozole, maybe roast turkey or perhaps baba ghanoush. Good food is hard to put a price on, especially when it’s reflective of our traditions and connections to the land.

But powerful actors often use food not for peace, but as a weapon of war.

Whether it’s Russia’s strategic disruption of Ukrainian grain shipments and covering farmland with landmines or Israel’s cutting of civilian access to food and water in Gaza and turning of farmland into settlements — depriving access to food is done for political objectives.

The U.S. is by no means above the fray in such matters.

Our government’s Food for Peace program, which became part of the Farm Bill beginning in 1954, drives indigenous farmers in developing countries out of business as they cannot compete with our cheap, overproduced commodity crops that flood their markets.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can promote policies to ensure that everyone has access to culturally appropriate food and the necessary means to grow it for themselves and their communities.

Global movements, such as La Via Campesina, demand as much in calling for food sovereignty. Central to food sovereignty is the idea that food neither should be used as a weapon nor a commodity. Moreover, the best way to respect our distinct food traditions is to democratize our food system by empowering people to grow their own food, push back against corporate power and support historically marginalized people of color.

There is no better way for us to begin to make such changes than by getting involved in our ongoing Farm Bill discussions. We have almost a year to do so, as congressional dysfunction has led lawmakers to delay passing new legislation until September.

In terms of details, first, we should push our lawmakers to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) accessibility. They can do this by including bipartisan bills within the Farm Bill that would dedicate more resources for people to purchase locally sourced produce at farmers markets and support local governments with the means to teach consumers how to prepare food on their own by scaling up programs such as SNAP-Ed.

There’s also the need to make sure that as our population changes, we support our next, diverse generation of small farmers.

The Fair Credit for Farmers Act would do just that, making important reforms at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Specifically, the bill addresses the history of racist discrimination that farmers of color have experienced by mandating that USDA officials provide specific reasons when loans are denied and empowering farmers to sue the government in the event of wrongdoing.

To ensure that people who grow our food can earn a living, Vermont U.S. Sen. Peter Welch’s Fairness for Small-Scale Farmers and Ranches Act would begin to make a powerful change.

This legislation would halt mergers of large-scale agribusiness firms while requiring a review of recent large-scale acquisitions. Increasing concentrated markets, according to Mary Hendrickson of the University of Missouri at Columbia, subjects farmers to whatever processors will pay for their produce and consumers to inflated prices at the grocery store. While giving farmers a fighting chance by making markets more competitive, Welch’s bill also dedicates $100 million more to the Local Agriculture Market Program, which helps producers promote their products at farmers markets and that revitalizes local food chains.

The unifying, life-giving properties of food are put on display this time of year as we build and celebrate community. Ongoing military conflicts betray this principle by using food as a weapon. We can do better, and the Farm Bill gives us one chance to do so. This next year, let’s work on policies that truly let us honor the food that makes us who we are.

Jim Goodman is a retired dairy farmer from Wonewoc, Wisconsin, and board president of the National Family Farm Coalition. Anthony Pahnke is an associate professor of international relations at San Francisco State University and vice president of the Family Farm Defenders, an advocacy group for farmers and consumers.

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