Sun Journal | 12 May 2019
Sharon Treat: Mainers right to be skeptical that USMCA will fix farmers’ woes
by Sharon Treat
The national Chamber of Commerce-funded Trade Works for America is airing ads in Maine promoting the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA or New NAFTA). Featuring a Maine dairy farmer saying, “old trade agreements are hurting us,” the ad calls on Rep. Jared Golden to support the USMCA, implying it is new and improved and will, therefore, fix Maine farmers’ problems.
Would that it were.
True, NAFTA and other “old trade agreements” hurt farmers and rural economies. It doesn’t follow, though, that the new NAFTA represents a bright new day — and a rebranding doesn’t mean an improvement. Analysis by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy makes clear that the NAFTA revamp doubles down on corporate-written policies that will worsen the economic headwinds faced by rural economies and farming families, lower food safety standards and make it much more difficult to inform consumers through nutritional and ingredient labeling.
The combination of U.S. agricultural and trade policies has decimated family farms and increased corporate concentration. Since the original NAFTA, the U.S. has lost some 247,000 family farms. Maine is not exempt from these trends. Despite valiant efforts to support agriculture through farmland easements, innovative dairy policies, buy-local promotion and investment in processing facilities, recently released U.S. Census of Agriculture data confirms Maine lost 10 percent of its farmland and 573 farms in just five years.
The New NAFTA proposes to remedy this situation by increasing agribusiness exports and further limiting regulation of food safety and the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture — policies that will worsen both farmers’ economic situations and public health. The New NAFTA will make it more difficult to adopt policy innovations that would stabilize farming economies and promote sustainability. Provisions that chip away at Canada’s supply management programs and open Canada’s dairy market to increased U.S. exports would not significantly reduce the vast oversupply of U.S. raw milk, or increase prices paid to U.S. dairy farmers that are often already below the cost of production. The Canadian market is simply too small to make a difference, and most of the changes — such as allowing more exports of dried milk — aren’t that relevant to Maine farmers.
Adopting a version of supply management in the U.S. — instead of decimating the Canadian program — is far more likely to help Maine farmers. Just last month, dairy farmers from Maine joined those from New Hampshire and Vermont to learn how supply management stabilized prices paid to farmers and helped stem the loss of family dairy farms just across the border in Quebec and Ontario.
Maine’s Congressional delegation is right to be skeptical of the USMCA hype coming from the Trump administration and lobbying groups funded by transnational agribusiness, chemical and pharmaceutical industries that outsourced half a billion jobs under the original NAFTA. Even the most optimistic estimates for the USMCA show minimal gains to the overall U.S economy (0.35 percent GDP increase by the sixth year after it enters into force).
If the New NAFTA was merely an exercise in harmless rebranding, then perhaps these anemic gains wouldn’t matter too much. But it isn’t harmless. It checks in at nearly 2,000 pages, with corporate giveaways larded throughout that directly impinge on state and federal authority to protect the public. New NAFTA provisions — many directly lifted from the controversial and rejected Transpacific Partnership — read like a laundry list of horrors: It devises new ways to hide information on health and environmental risk from the public. It “streamlines” determinations that foreign food safety, plant and animal health and animal welfare measures are “equivalent” to the U.S., despite evidence that they are not. It further deregulates the newest genetic modification techniques, potentially opening markets to new agricultural products without risk assessment. It promotes voluntary guidance and self-regulation through “regulatory cooperation” consultations where corporations have preferred access to regulators, limiting public protections for consumers, workers and the environment. It locks in high prices for life-saving medicines.
These provisions would make it more difficult for Maine to enact public protections under consideration on toxics, climate and agricultural sustainability, as well as efforts to lower the cost of prescription drugs. Mainers should reject the new NAFTA as a bad deal for farmers and for Maine.
Sharon Treat of Hallowell is senior attorney at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and a member of the Maine Citizen Trade Policy Commission.