U.S. President Trump’s haphazard and imprecise approach to trade policy not only causes nervousness among the American trading partners and uneasiness across the business community; it also imposes a framing of the debate on globalization that narrows the media’s lens of analysis to the impact on corporate America, investors, and Wall Street. The New York Times Editorial Board, for example, describes the damage to businesses and investors created by the uncertainty of Trump’s threats of trade wars in a December 2018 opinion-editorial. This focus, however, is a poor proxy for impacts on society and the working and middle class, in particular.
Agriculture provides a perfect illustration. The Board notes in its opinion-editorial that the agriculture sector is being hit especially hard, due to the loss of exports to China. But what we need is a broader conversation about the impact of trade rules on jobs, living wages, healthy food systems, and the environment. Stating that Trump’s tariffs might hurt agriculture as a sector tells us too little about who is left behind, or harmed, by the administration’s policies.
In the U.S. today, 90 percent of tax-dollar subsidies go to the production of five commodity crops: wheat, cotton, soybean, corn, and rice. These subsidies are distributed in ways that contribute to social inequity and environmental degradation. The top five recipients of subsidies since 2008 each received between US$18.6 million and US$23.8 million. The Farm Bill passed on December 20, 2018, is no better, awarding millions of dollars to wealthy agribusiness and factory farms through commodity subsidies and crop insurance, reducing conservation and stewardship programs, and offering little to new farmers and ranchers or local markets and promotion.
These subsidies are handed out in a context where farmland is increasingly owned by financial investors and leased out to farmers, a trend that largely explains why it is so difficult for a new generation of farmers to emerge: the average age of farmers in the U.S. is in the mid-50s. Meanwhile, according to the most recent National Agricultural Workers Survey by the U.S. Department of Labor, farm workers work 42 hours per week and earn US$7.25 per hour, on average—but this average varies greatly. This level of earnings puts farm workers and their families below the national poverty line. Undocumented farmworkers face even worse circumstances.
Nor is this all. The homogenization of the global food supply—caused in part by tax dollars subsidizing five commodity crops—reduces diet diversity. It is a major cause of a nutrition transition characterized by nutrient deficiencies and increasing rates of associated chronic diseases. This does not touch upon the environmental damage, including the emission of greenhouse gas emissions, that comes from the type of agriculture U.S. economic policy supports.
Ordinary citizens cannot properly weigh the effects of these tariffs by looking just at the impact on the current structure on the agricultural sector. Reports on the impact of Trump’s rhetoric and action on trade and tariffs should not divert attention from the national conversation we urgently need about how economic policy is made and its outcomes for society, including on the food system on which we depend.
Large corporations are part of a process that allows corporate citizens to view and weigh in on trade agreements as they are being negotiated, while public interest organizations cannot. This influence has allowed large corporations in multiple sectors to dominate global markets and profit handsomely. As noted by Professor Wu in The New York Times, corporate concentration and influence cast aside “the safeguards that…protect democracy against a dangerous marriage of private and public power.”
Rather than focusing on how large corporate entities attempt to minimize tariff costs (see, for example, James Tankersley describing a sportswear company’s experience with tariff engineering under the Trump presidency), our attention must be on how we restore democratic accountability to economic policymaking, especially when it concerns the social and ecological sustainability of food systems. We must ensure that trade and tariffs support the welfare of all people and not just those at the top or with political connections.
Since the mid-1980s, policies on trade, deregulation, and privatization have allowed the largest corporations to put people to work where the workforce is cheap, pollute where environmental rules are weak, and declare their profits where taxes are low. Yet, these are not inevitable trends or trajectories; they are a political choice in a system where ordinary people have little-to-no political influence.
Because the rules of globalization are not set in stone, we must ask who shapes them and for whose benefit. This is the first step towards restoring democratic accountability to policymaking.
The Freshman Class entering U.S. Congress in January 2019 is a hopeful sign that we are going to try to fix our system of democratic governance rather than abandon it. Hopefully, the efforts of citizen-led like initiatives like Living Democracy, Feeding Hope (Small Planet Institute) will find more willing hands within our institutions of government to work together to restore balance. The future of our food is the frontline of the real challenge we are facing: to restore a system that works for all, including the working and middle classes.