When I first arrived in southwestern Virginia 30 years ago, there were still a few cut and sew factories scattered about. There were quite a few more just east of us in what’s known as Southside Virginia, along with numerous furniture factories. That mix of small to mid-size textile and furniture manufacturers were even more prominent just below the border in North Carolina, with still more in South Carolina. There were plenty of stresses on those businesses, but there’s no doubt that the passage of NAFTA in 1994, which encouraged capital flight to find cheaper labor, pretty much finished them off.
Around that same time, and in many of the same counties, the first genetic engineered varieties of soybeans and corn were making an appearance. Soon after came GMO cotton. Different genetic traits were being pushed into these varieties, but the most common was resistance to glyphosate, or Round Up. These plants could be sprayed with the herbicide without being damaged; hence the name, “Round Up Ready”. While these new varieties didn’t wipe out farmers the way “trade deals” wiped out so much manufacturing in the South, they did launch a process, now two decades on, that has taken the life out of soils, hastened the emergence of herbicide resistant weeds, all while making the farmers ever more dependent on a handful of giant transnational corporations. All of this was not just tolerated but promoted and subsidized by our federal government.
There’s a scorched earth underpinning to GMO agriculture, and no less so, trade agreements that denude so many communities and readily accept so much collateral damage. They’re two sides of the same coin, which I’ve come to call Round-Up Ready trade policy.
With the recent signing of a weak and misleading GMO labeling law, and with the President pushing relentlessly for passage of the Trans Pacific Partnership during the lame duck session, I’d suggest we start looking at these two issues together. They have much in common, and most of it isn’t pretty.
Our approach to international trade and to GMO crops directly contradicts what research and experience on the ground both tell us: That investment at the local level, investment geared to foster diversity and build strength from the ground up, is what works best. This is true for farms, for local economies and for communities. For instance, an Iowa State study demonstrated that simply diversifying corn and soybean farms with a wheat rotation reduced weeds by more than 80% and herbicide use by nearly 90%, while simultaneously eliminating corn root worms as a pest. This was done using no genetically engineered plants. And multiple studies – from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, the Maine Center for Economic Policy and the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, among other places – have shown that communities with a diversity of businesses are more economically vibrant and resilient, and their citizens healthier and more engaged, compared with neighboring communities dependent upon a few big corporations. In spite of this evidence, our Round Up Ready trade agreements consistently disadvantage these small to mid-size businesses, while the unfaltering push for GMOs has enabled herbicide resistant “super weeds” on more than 60 million acres of American farmland.
As so much evidence has accumulated about the many negative “externalities” of these policies, and even as their promised benefits have not materialized, our response has been to double down and double up. NAFTA was supposed to deliver jobs and enhance US manufacturing. Instead we lost nearly 3 million jobs and saw wages decline substantially. The more recent trade deal with South Korea promised to invigorate our exports and reduce our trade deficit, but precisely the opposite has happened, in grand fashion. GMO crops, we were told, would dramatically increase yields while reducing pesticide use, contributing to farmers’ increased profitability. In fact, yields from these much more expensive seeds have been barely above conventional hybrids, and many GMO varieties are now underperforming hybrids. Herbicide use has increased by nearly 500 million pounds. Yet all of this failure, all of these unfulfilled promises have only emboldened our Round Up Ready leaders, with the TPP expanding corporate power over patents and intellectual property, while the next generation of GMOs include resistance to even more, and more toxic herbicides.
In the final analysis, our Round Up Ready Trade policy, including the permissive approach to GMOs and herbicides, unabashedly empowers the powerful at the expense of the vulnerable; prioritizes corporate monopoly over economic and agricultural diversity; and protects the biggest corporations and wealthiest investors over working people, small businesses, farmers and consumers. The fight for GMO labeling is over for now, but the battle over the TPP and other corporate trade deals is still before us. And we could just win this one.
Anthony Flaccavento is a farmer, author and consultant near Abingdon, Virginia. His book, Building a Healthy Economy from the Bottom Up was published by the University Press of Kentucky in June, 2016. You can follow him on Twitter (@bottomupeconomy) or watch his weekly You Tube videos at www.bottomupeconomy.org