You may or may not have heard that negotiations are currently underway in  Ottawa, Canada to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP is a free-trade agreement between 12 pacific-rim countries  (United States, Canada, Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam) who are working to create the world’s largest free-trade pact under conditions of complete secrecy.

Why are the negotiations are being kept under lock and key? Because if the conditions of the agreement were to be released, it’s doubtful that the 800 million people whose lives are about to be changed would allow the negotiations to continue.

Free-trade proponents (which include both Democratic and Republican parties in the United States) argue that free-trade agreements create economic benefits and wealth for all those involved. They claim that free-trade agreements make economies more efficient by expanding economic competition beyond national borders. According to free-trade doctrine, efficiency leads to greater wealth and benefit for all.

Free-Trade proponents also claim that economic competition necessarily brings greater democracy. Hillary Clinton, one of the most important supporters of TPP during US President Obama’s presidency, said that “democracy and prosperity go hand-in-hand”. Free-Trade hawks like Clinton will never tell you that free-trade agreements usually benefit a select few within each of the participating countries, primarily those who direct the businesses and corporations with enough wealth and resources to control supply chains that stretch across borders and oceans.

NAFTA created a wave of forced migration

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was a boon for United States agribusiness corporations. Companies like Monsanto, Cargill, Syngenta, and others have grown and extended their reach under NAFTA. US agriculture is both industrial and heavily subsidized by the US Department of Agriculture. Each year industrial farmers in the US purchase corporate seeds to produce a massive surplus crop that drives overall prices down. NAFTA opened up Mexican and Canadian markets to large-scale dumping of this surplus.

NAFTA guaranteed markets for US agribusiness companies and farmers, but dumping also drove corn prices in Mexico so low that small farmers in Mexico could not sell their own produce. Millions of farmers were forced to migrate from Latin America to the United States to find work and survive.

It’s no coincidence that the United States has free-trade agreements with the countries who provide the largest and fastest growing population of undocumented immigrants in the United States (Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras). Free-trade agreements extend market access for corporations, but they also keep in place the systems of legal citizenship that exclude non-citizens from protections against labor exploitation and violence.

Who will feed us?

Agriculture is a major component of the TPP, and squabbles have already occurred over the unfair subsidies and restrictions that more powerful countries wield in trade negotiations. Squabbles over subsidies during the negotiations, however, are usually meant to protect business interests in both countries.

small and family farmers almost never influence trade negotiations, and NAFTA has shown that small farmers are some of the hardest hit by free-trade agreements. In response, small farmers’ organizations are a militant but little noticed element of anti-globalization protests. They helped to form the solidarity networks that were successful in shutting down the WTO N30 protests in Seattle in 1998, and organizations like La Via Campesina were major participants in anti-WTO protests since then.

Over the last few years, governments organizing trade negotiations have learned in step with protestors; they are now quite good at controlling crowds and keeping trade negotiations going in spite of protests. Secrecy imposed upon the TPP negotiations is a tactic that keeps opponents from making arguments against the TPP, because almost nothing about the agreement is known (A few chapters have been leaked and are available at Wikileaks, a website that published secret and classified documents).

Resisting the TPP

We must resist the TPP and prevent it from moving forward, but we must quickly develop new tactics for doing so. No single tactic has yet been successful, but some organizations are already doing great work. BAYAN-USA, an alliance of 18 progressive Filipino organizations in the United States, held an online teach in and webinar that highlighted the fact that the TPP is coming alongside a refocusing of U.S. military might towards the pacific (referred to as the “Asia Pacific Pivot”). Conversations like these are essential for developing a broad critique of the TPP and creating links across movements. They make the important point that free trade usually comes alongside US military bases.

Defeating the TPP will also require that we develop an alternative vision for agriculture that puts power and creativity into the hands of small farmers and cuts global agribusiness completely out of the picture. We write frequently about the System of Crop Intensification because we believe that its emphasis on indigenous seeds and small farmer innovation,  its adaptability to climactic variation, and its bountiful harvests make it an effective alternative. However, SCI is not the only possible alternative nor is it sufficient by itself. Another innovative example comes from Niger where farmers are using trees to hold groundwater and reclaim desert land.

A new global agriculture will require us to imagine and create new knowledge sets and infrastructures that will support the billions of small farmers that continue to feed the world today.

The work has already started, now it’s up to us to keep it going.