Op-Ed, 540 words

Food System Pays Dearly as Wall Street Occupies Washington

It's nearly impossible to find a legislative or regulatory issue related to food and agriculture that hasn't been deeply shaped (if not outright written) by corporate lobbyists.

Ben Lilliston

Despite the Occupy Wall Street movement’s now month-long direct challenge to corporate and financial industry power, the machine keeps rolling along.

The 1 percent recently racked up two more big victories. President Barack Obama signed three new free-trade agreements and regulators watered down rules that govern commodity markets, which ultimately have a big impact on both farmers and consumers. Both developments make the protestors’ point: Washington is occupied by corporate power.

Protestors rally against the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement. (b. wu / Flick)

Protestors rally against the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement. (b. wu / Flick)

In 2008, as the financial sector was barreling toward collapse, we at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) reported on how excessive speculation by Wall Street firms was affecting farmers and the global food system. The result was record global rates of hunger caused by extreme price volatility in the agricultural markets.

Post-collapse, as Washington scrambled to put together regulations to repair our broken system, Wall Street launched an aggressive lobbying surge to oppose the effort. That fight continues — Goldman Sachs alone spent more than $1 million on lobbying last quarter — and Wall Street continually comes out on top.

Wall Street saw part of its investment pay off when the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) — the agency responsible for regulating futures and options markets — approved a new, watered-down rule that will likely allow excessive speculation to continue. And this victory came on the heels of a move, already approved by the House of Representatives, to cut funding for regulatory agencies, further undermining the CFTC’s struggle to regulate derivatives markets.

Those new so-called “free-trade” deals — with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama — are another brazen demonstration of corporate power. There’s no clarion call from the public for more of these agreements. Quite the opposite is true. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last year found that 69 percent of Americans believe such pacts cost Americans jobs. Only 18 percent believe they create jobs.

If the promises of job creation and economic growth from these trade deals sound familiar, they should. We heard the same rhetoric before the United States signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and later the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). We also heard it before the launching of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

But 30 years of efforts to place corporate trade and investment concerns above all else have been particularly damaging to farmers, both in the United States and in our trading-partner countries. These deals help concentrate the benefits to large-scale traders, processors, and exporters of certain food products. Meanwhile, they fail to ensure fair prices for farmers, equity for workers, respect for human rights, food security for consumers, or protection for the environment either at home or abroad.

It’s nearly impossible to find a legislative or regulatory issue related to food and agriculture that hasn’t been deeply shaped (if not outright written) by corporate lobbyists. The original call for the Wall Street protests included one demand: a presidential commission to end the influence of corporate money in Washington. That would be a step in the right direction for those who care about agriculture and our food system. If Washington won’t step up to the plate, the stakes will only get higher.

Ben Lilliston is an Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) vice president. www.iatp.org


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