By Zack Kaldveer and Katherine Paul
Organic Consumers Association, December 17, 2013
In his epic book of poetry, Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman advises “Resist Much. Obey Little.” But when it comes to corporations trampling on local rights, the city of Madison, Wis., advises other cities and counties to do what it has done: Resist much. Obey not.
In October, the Madison City Council unanimously passed a resolution declaring the city a “TPP-Free Zone,” and promising that if Congress passes the Trans Pacific Partnership, a global trade agreement, “We will not obey” it.
The TPP is the largest global trade pact to be negotiated since the World Trade Organization (WTO). Most of the details of the deal remain a mystery. Negotiations are being conducted in secret. But we know, from some of the drafts that have been leaked, that the TPP would hand transnational corporations the power to “protect their future profit potential” by suing countries, states, counties or cities in order to wipe out existing laws—laws specifically designed to protect communities’ best interests.
Those interests could include everything from internet freedom and banking and finance regulation, to the passing of bans on growing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
“Call it a sovereignty issue, or local control, or threat of lowering local standards with regard to government procurement (elimination of any “buy local” ordinances), food safety ordinances, living wage ordinances, environmental requirements, prevailing wage requirements on construction, etc.—[Madison City Council members] saw all these as threats to their authority and the job they had been elected to do,” said David Newby of the Wisconsin Fair Trade Coalition. Newby played a key role in passing the “TPP-Free Zone” resolution in Madison, and another in Dane County, Wis.
The “TPP-Free Zone” concept is modeled after the successful grassroots strategy that helped defeat a similar trade agreement in 1998, called the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). The basic premise was to convince elected officials, city by city, county by county, of the need to refuse to obey the MAI if it became law. The anti-MAI grassroots effort succeeded by exposing the dark side of the MAI, and by proving its unpopularity with the public.
A scenario similar to the anti-MAI grassroots movement is unfolding today, this time with the TPP as its target. According to the latest poll, 61 percent of the public in key countries, including the U.S., oppose the TPP. Opposition has grown, thanks to the work of many groups, including the Organic Consumers Association, who have publicly opposed the deal, and launched massive public education campaigns to expose the unprecedented secrecy surrounding the deal, and the potential for the TPP to subvert democracy for the benefit of corporate profits.
TPP protesters recently turned out in mass in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. More than 400 organizations representing 15 million Americans have already petitioned Congress to do away with Fast Track, a tactic the Obama Administration wants to use in order to ram the deal through Congress, without debate.
But if efforts to thwart the deal fail, states, cities and counties can follow the lead of Madison and Dane County by passing their own TPP-Free zones. Ruth Caplan, with the Alliance for Democracy, hopes they will. In a recent interview, Caplan urged people to work with their local governments to “build a democratic movement of resistance.”
“This starts from the grass roots, in the communities where we live . . . This is not, 'Please, Congress, do the right thing,' but language of resistance. We need to say, 'If you create this secretly negotiated corporate trade agreement and it is rubber-stamped by Congress, we will not obey.'"
The Berkeley Peace & Justice Commission (PJC) has approved a TPP-Free Zone resolution, and says the Berkeley, Calif. city council could take it up this month.
For citizens or officials interested in passing TPP-Free Zone resolutions in other states and counties, the Alliance for Democracy website provides information, model municipal laws that can be edited to fit the needs of any community, and includes pointers on how to convince wavering local officials to pass “We Will Not Obey” resolutions.
The TPP, Monsanto and the future of food
There’s a long list of reasons to oppose the TPP. Food safety is right at the top—especially with a former Monsanto lobbyist leading U.S. negotiations on agricultural issues.
Specifically, the TPP would require countries to accept food that meets only the lowest safety standards of the collective participants. That means consumers could soon be eating imported seafood, beef or chicken products that don’t meet even basic U.S. food safety standards. And the (FDA) would be powerless to shut down imports of these unsafe food or food ingredients.
Countries, including those in the European Union, could also find it increasingly difficult to ban, or even require the labeling of, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) if biotech companies determine that those countries’ strict policies restrict fair trade and infringe on the companies’ “rights” to profit.
To top it off, corporations would be allowed to resolve trade disputes in special international tribunals, effectively wiping out hundreds of domestic and international food sovereignty laws. Products labeled fair trade, organic, country-of-origin, animal-welfare approved, or GMO-free, could all be challenged as “barriers to trade.”
With the world’s food supply, and consumers’ health, already endangered by chemical-intensive industrial agriculture and climate change, the U.S. and other governments should be looking for ways to promote sustainable food and agriculture policies, not restrict governments’ abilities to do so. Instead, the Obama Administration is subverting the principles of democracy in favor of handing a few transnational corporations unprecedented power to put profits above the health and well-being of consumers.
Fortunately citizens are protesting. And city and county governments are claiming the power to resist.
Zack Kaldveer is assistant media director of the Organic Consumers Association.
Katherine Paul is associate director of the Organic Consumers Association.