Some family farm groups are open to renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but first they want a seat at the table and a different approach that emphasizes family farmers and rural communities.

“I’ve been against NAFTA from the very beginning,” said Joe Maxwell, a farmer and former lieutenant governor of Missouri. Maxwell recently co-founded a 501(c)(4) political action organization, Family Farm Action, to “build the political muscle” to fight for family farmers and rural communities. “I’m definitely in favor of re-opening NAFTA, but not with the closed-door pro-agribusiness process we’ve seen so far. Cargill has a seat at the table. The meatpackers have a seat at the table. But family farmers, on all sides of the border, we don’t.”

Family farm groups are working together to inject their opinion into the trade debate,. Last week the Trump administration began talks with Mexico and Canada about renegotiating the agreement, and more discussions are in the works. Todd Leake, North Dakota farmer and member of the Western Organization of Resource Councils, agrees with Maxwell.

“From a farmer’s perspective, I have a lot of concerns about NAFTA,” he said. Leake said he opposes many of the agreement’s provisions. He said free-trade principles weaken labor laws and environmental standards and give preferential treatment to foreign investors and conflict with national sovereignty. “Without having access to the documents we’re negotiating, it’s kind of hard to tell what to think.”

Leake raises a variety of row crops on his Grand Forks County, North Dakota, farm. “Right after NAFTA took effect, the border grain elevators expanded dramatically. The train traffic picked up. We lost our local market for barley, and we lost a lot of value, it’s estimated to be $1 per bushel, for our hard red spring wheat,” he said. Leake says that these market impacts were driven by dumping, or the practice of exporting goods at below the cost-of-production.

“We look at agricultural trade as a tool for farmers, not as an end in itself,” said Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). “The mainstream media often conflates the interests of farmers with that of agribusiness. The big question is, is a trade agreement good for farmers? Is it good for rural communities?”

IATP, along with collaborators in all three of the NAFTA countries, released a study last week that criticizes the track record for the continental free-trade zone. Though the volume of trade between the three countries has expanded substantially, the economic activity has not translated to prosperity for the farmers raising crops and livestock.

Instead, family farm groups believe that free trade agreements like NAFTA benefit corporate agribusiness interests, who operate as food processors and exporters in all three countries.

“I’m reminded of a story where Mexican hog farmers and small-town butchers were driven out of business by corporate hog growers once NAFTA was implemented, “ Maxwell said, pointing to several news stories. “They hung on, until they couldn’t any more. Then, after they lost everything in Mexico, they crossed the border and became cheap labor for Smithfield at the world’s largest hog processing plant in North Carolina. It’s sad, but it’s an outcome of that corporate agribusiness capture of the political process.”

As the NAFTA re-negotiation process moves forward, family farm groups from all three nations are proposing a new trade framework that, among others:

  • Improves transparency of the trade talks.
  • Restores country-of-origin labeling for food products.
  • Restores countries’ ability to protect farmers by supporting domestic production and limiting dumping.
  • Protects farmers’ ability to save seeds and public ownership of seed varieties.
  • Protects the rights of immigrant agricultural workers.

Supporters of the different approach to trade policy include the National Farmers Union of Canada, Mexican National Association of Rural Producers, National Family Farm Coalition, Food and Water Watch, Rural Coalition and R-CALF USA.

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