Unfair Trade

(This article appeared on the blog PeoplePlanetProphet on 1 November 2014) Christians of all stripes should be concerned about the proposed free trade agreement between the European Union (EU) and the United States (US). In the book of Exodus we read of the Israelites’ suffering at the hands of Pharaoh, especially when Moses began agitating for their freedom. Pharaoh suddenly decreed that the Hebrew workforce had to produce the same amount of bricks as they had previously but without straw being provided. What had been a difficult task quickly became a torturous one. The moral of the story - that the weak suffer when the powerful abuse their power - is one repeated throughout the biblical record. It is a trend that, sadly, continues to this day. And it is also a theme much apparent in the proposed free trade agreement between the EU and the US, the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, there is a rush to the bottom in terms of standards in various important areas of life, notably food. Few trade barriers currently exist between the EU and the US and the crux of the matter is really about ‘harmonising’ standards between the two jurisdictions. The problem is that this favours lower US food standards, including on safety, labour rights, animal welfare and environmental protection. In practice, for consumers, this will mean ready access to American meat fed with growth promoters and hormones, washed with chlorine and lactic acid, containing proven endocrine disrupters, and that cannot be tested for a parasitic nematode worm, trichinae. And for many of our family farms it will mean continued stifling pressure to get bigger or get out of business. Yet this is at a time when an increasing number of experts are recognising that small- and medium-sized farms not only feed the majority of the world, but produce food more efficiently than big ones when measured on a per hectare basis. The second major concern with the TTIP is that it subverts democracy. Not only have many of the negotiations been conducted in secret, but civil society organisations that represent the wishes of ordinary people and their everyday lives have been consulted about the proposed deal much less than multinational corporations (MNCs), who represent the narrow interests of their shareholders. In addition, the inclusion of something called investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms in the deal would provide legal means for MNCs to overrule and sue nation states for introducing legislation that impinged on their investments, such as banning a particularly toxic chemical. The story from Exodus reminds us that power needs to be challenged and held to account, by the Church most of all. In the proud tradition of Moses and the prophets, we cannot pick and choose when to apply our biblical mandate for justice. We cannot passionately campaign against unfair trade in the Global South and then dispassionately ignore it on our own doorstep. But we can indeed remember that business involves relationships between real people and with God’s creation, that the economy should exist to create a flourishing world for everyone and everything, and that all trade should be, can be, must be fair. Gloria in excelsis Deo.
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5 Responses to Unfair Trade

  1. Pingback: Unfair Trade | the Irish Church

  2. Michael Tweed says:

    I think I disagree with the author on this one. As Christians we should hold our leaders to account; but also consider fresh ways to grow the resources we’ve been trusted with – and trade liberalisation has incredible potential to do just that.. by its nature though, not everyone will get their own way! on their agribusiness concern – yes we have perhaps higher standards here, but food would still have to be labelled.. and anything that might shake up the French agriculture subsidies (i.e .CAP) might be a good thing. Beef is a case in point – the Americans would be “lowering” their standards by permitting beef from mad-cow disease areas… but then that would open up the possbility of new markets for NI beef! On their ‘secrecy’ point – negotiations have a pretty high failure rate (i.e. Doha) – inviting everyone to the table at once would have a zero chance to succeed!

    Further – trade liberalisation could grow Africa phenomenally faster than other poverty-intervention measures – and if we can’t even do a US-EU deal, what hope is there for increasing trade elsewhere in the world? World development movement have been pretty critical, but I think they have missed a trick.

    • Jonny Hanson says:


      Many thanks for your valued comment. It’s great to see debate being stirred by my piece on the TTIP. I certainly agree with you that we should be responsible stewards of our resources. I also agree with you that trade – of the right kind – can be a very important tool for achieving sustainable development. And I even agree that EU agricultural subsidies can be very harmful in certain cases (though they can help make up for market failures in others, such as by supporting younger farmers, conversions to organic farming, etc.).

      But on the issue of trade liberalisation we will have to disagree. Granted, while there are sometimes unnecessary bits of red tape that can be scrapped, generally speaking, the history of trade liberalisation has been potholed with false prophecies and broken promises.

      Take Haiti. It used to be largely self-sufficient in rice and dairy products. Then IMF-imposed structural adjustments meant that it was forced to open its markets to subsidised food from wealthy nations, especially the USA and France. Now it imports most of its rice and dairy products. What’s more, the many farmers forced off their land by this injustice ended up squatting in shanty towns in Port-au-Prince: no home, no land, no work. When the earthquake struck in 2008, these areas were flattened. The death toll was catastrophic. Trade liberalisation, in this case, literally has blood on its hands, though it;s clearly not the only factor to blame.

      Sadly, the devastated lives of ordinary people are the norm and not the exception with much trade liberalisation. It’s a similar story with the Ivory Coast. It was self-sufficient in rice. But after having its markets prised open by yet more structural adjustment policies, it ended up importing two thirds of its rice.

      And consider this unedited video footage from Christian Aid – some of the most saddening and troubling I have ever seen – which shows a tomato farmer from Ghana breaking rocks in a quarry because he has been put out of business by subsidised tomato imports from rich, Western countries: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76cGE8J0m1w

      Whether it is Africa or Northern Ireland, or anywhere else for that matter, we should remember that trade needs to be governed by values and principles as well as value and profits. Traidcraft is a great example of this. Principled, fair and sustainable trade can be part of an economy that is the servant and not the master, the means and not the end. That end is a just and flourishing world. On that vision, I hope we can agree.

    • Paul says:

      Michael said, about multilateral negotiations: “On their ‘secrecy’ point – negotiations have a pretty high failure rate (i.e. Doha) – inviting everyone to the table at once would have a zero chance to succeed!”

      On the other hand, if the “successful” result of negotiations turns out to be deeply damaging to broader society, and advantages only a small minority (as analysis of the TTIP proposals suggests), is this really a success?

      Wouldn’t it be better to ensure that the interests of broader society are taken into account from the start?

      After all, despite the difficulties, in a democracy we don’t pass LAWS in secret. Why should treaties that determine the Laws be different?

  3. Paul says:

    This is a hugely important and puzzlingly neglected issue. Both the anti-democratic policy laundering which allows the government to deny responsibility for the rules they have demanded in the secret negotiations, and the harmful nature of the rules being constructed in this particular case.

    I wrote about it earlier too, but we really need to let our representatives know how bad this is. Otherwise they will continue to think the only thing that matters is flegs!

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