What You Need to Know About Trade Agreements and Fast Track

Story at-a-glance -

  • Fast Track gives the President the right to negotiate and finalize a trade agreement, and then present it to Congress for a yes or no vote. No amendments can be made at that point
  • Trade agreements are negotiated under strict secrecy. By the time Congress votes on them, the deals have already been struck, and negotiations tend to favor multinational corporations
  • Trade agreements currently under negotiation involve “harmonizing” regulations that will affect food safety, chemical regulations, local renewable energy programs, and may destroy the “buy local” movement
  • It’s urgent to push Congress to oppose Fast Track, and start a discussion about what these trade agreements really mean for the US economy, and our environmental and public health

By Dr. Mercola

Ben Lilliston is the Vice President of Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. In this video, Lilliston discusses an issue that is rarely reported in the mainstream media, and poorly understood by the general public, namely: free trade agreements.

Free trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), have huge implications, both in terms of our economy and our daily lives. Lilliston began looking at NAFTA in the early '90s when he worked with Ralph Nader.

"I have now been working at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) since year 2000," he says. "What we do is really focus on the details of trade agreements that are very inaccessible for the public. They're written in legal jargon and so forth.

What we're trying to do is really break it down. What does this mean for farmers? We're particularly interested in that. What does it mean for rural communities?

What does it mean for public health, for the environment, and for workers?...These are all things that we're interested in and trying to shed a light on."

Trade Agreements Are Negotiated in Secret

One of the aspects Lilliston finds most disturbing is the fact that trade agreements are negotiated in secret; hence it's very difficult to engage in a public debate about them.

By the time Congress votes on them, the deals have already been struck, and the public has no way of knowing the details of the negotiations.

"That's why it's really important to speak out now about it and try to raise questions, so that we can be sure that the agreements reflect the interest of the public good and not just a handful of private corporations who are behind the scenes negotiating hand in hand with the US Trade representative on these trade agreements," he says.

Fast Track is an important part of this discussion. Fast Track, Lilliston explains, gives the President the right to negotiate and finalize a trade agreement, and then present it to Congress for a vote.

Under the US constitution, Congress has the right to engage in trade agreements prior to this, and to set negotiating parameters. For example, Congress might insist on parameters to protect the environment or public health.

But under Fast Track, Congress more or less relinquishes this right (and responsibility), letting the President negotiate at will instead. And, once the agreements are completed, you can no longer make any amendments. Congress simply votes for the agreement or against it, in its entirety.

"This makes it very difficult for members of Congress to vote against a trade agreement because there will be an enormous amount of pressure. The agreement's already been agreed upon. It's a big deal," Lilliston says. "It's really is about democracy as we view it."

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that even members of Congress are limited in getting a full understanding of the details of the agreement they're voting for. They're only allowed to read the agreement in a special room, and they're not allowed to bring in any aides, experts, or trade legal lawyers they might need to decipher the text. Moreover:

"They can take notes, but they can't bring the notes out of the meeting with them. They have to leave them there. This is how secret this trade agreement is," Lilliston says.

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Current Trade Agreements Under Negotiation

Right now there are two huge trade agreements being negotiated, both of which will have a major impact on the US economy and other aspects of public and environmental health:

  1. Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which involves the United States and 11 other countries around the Pacific Rim. Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam are some of the bigger countries involved
  2. Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) which is an agreement between the US and Europe

There’s a lot at stake here, as these two trade agreements are negotiating rules around medicines, local food programs, food safety programs, and even labor rights. According to Lilliston, there’s simply too much at stake to allow the President to negotiate these agreements on his own, and not be able to amend the agreements once completed.

"Fast Track really says... take it or leave it, basically. This is our major concern about Fast Track. We think it's really important to oppose Fast Track, to really put pressure on the President to make these agreements public, and to have a public debate about them before they're completed and not after they're a done deal," Lilliston says.

Trade Agreements Lower and Destroy Regulatory Standards

Interestingly, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership both largely deal with regulations. If you're like most people, you probably think about trade partnerships as agreements that increase trade.

But these two agreements are largely about creating "regulatory harmonization" among participating nations. Basically, they seek to set up the same regulatory infrastructure in all countries involved in the agreements. As explained by Lilliston:

"What that means is the same kind of food safety rules, the same kind of rules around chemical regulation, the same of rules around genetically modified organisms (GMOs), for example; the same rules around intellectual property and medicines, and the same rules around financial regulations.

[M]ultinational corporations are involved in these negotiations, through trade advisory committees. They want one system of a regulatory environment where it makes it easy for them, where a product is approved here is also approved there...

Now, what we've seen over and over in trade agreements of the past is that this kind of harmonization of regulations, where you find one common standard, really lowers the standards. What they're finding is the lowest common denominator of a standard, so that everyone can meet it. It pushes regulations down."

Trade Agreements Give Corporations Legal Power to Oppose Regulations

The lowering of regulations is a major concern, especially when it comes to environmental- and public health safety. If the standard is lowered via a trade agreement, a country must lower its current regulations or standards or potentially face legal challenges.

Both of the trade agreements currently under negotiation grant corporations special legal rights, and if a corporation feels a nation's regulation violates one of these trade agreements, they can legally challenge the regulation. As noted by Lilliston:

"They can say, 'We set up our business operation this way based on this regulatory environment, and you've gone back on your word that you made in those trade agreements, so we are suing you. We want to get expected profits back as payment.'

It's called the Investor-State provision... [and] it grants corporations special legal rights under trade agreements. It really poses a major threat over new regulations and even with the existing trade agreements. We fear that this will be used as a hammer against regulations that protect public health through the environment."

Another major issue in these trade agreements relates to rules of procurement. For example, the US has many farm to school programs in place to support local farmers and local businesses, but public programs like these can be challenged by a foreign corporation saying, “We’re not eligible for that program, and that’s illegal under the trade rules.” As crazy as that sounds, that’s a very real concern. As noted by Lilliston, “the ‘Buy American’ provisions, which are very common in public procurement programs right now, could be under threat under trade rules.” Many states also have their own environmental regulations in place to protect human- and environmental health. These too could be challenged by these trade agreements.

"These trade agreements want to set one standard, so they're not going to have any state-based standards that are stronger than the national standard," Lilliston explains. "This particularly comes up in the case of GMO labeling where we're seeing all these states in United States pushing for GMO labeling. Vermont... Maine, and Connecticut have passed laws. There's a lot of momentum behind that.

These agreements would say, ‘No, you can’t do that at the state level. Sorry. We need one standard through all the countries involved.’ Basically, it’s kind of an end run around those state-based [initiatives] that have been very important in pushing for GMO labeling. These are the kind of things that we’re really troubled about.”

How Trade Agreements Can Impact Public Health Safety

The trade agreements also affect public health safety. Europe, one of the trading partners in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement, has in some cases stronger public health protections than in the US, which they stand to lose under this agreement. As noted by Lilliston, Europe has written into their law something called the precautionary principle. If there’s scientific uncertainty with regards to the safety of a product, it will not be permitted onto the market.

“There are 80-something pesticides that are approved here in the United States that are not approved in Europe, and largely, that has to do with the precautionary principle there and how they apply it,” Lilliston says. “This has been a major target of the US government in this negotiation with Europe. They want to get rid of the precautionary principle in Europe. I think for people in United States, the precautionary principle is a very important one and one that we want to advance more here in the United States in our regulatory system. So, really what these agreements are doing is tying our hands to improve our own regulations.

The more we learn about not only chemical exposures but other exposures through our food system and how that impacts health, we believe that regulations should evolve based on that. The more we find out about GMOs and how they are causing problems in the field for farmers, we think regulations should step in and say, ‘Okay, maybe we shouldn’t approve those anymore’... We think [these trade agreements] will limit our ability to protect public health in the future.”

Here’s another example: While neonicotinoid pesticides—which have been linked to the decimation of bee populations—are not regulated in the US, they have been banned in the European Union in order to protect pollinators. Pesticide companies have not taken kindly to the ban, and are pushing for the US-EU trade deal to lower the standard in order to get pesticide-treated seeds back into the EU.

Naturally, this would also prevent the US from creating more stringent regulations against this hazardous pesticide in the future, which is the exact converse of what needs to happen! The EU saw quick improvements in bee populations when neonics were withdrawn, and reintroducing them is clearly not in the best interest of public or environmental health. This is a very important issue, as bee colony collapse disorder isn't just about protecting one species of insect. It's about protecting the ecosystem and the human food supply! It's about protecting the future of mankind...

Take Action to Stop Fast Track!

So what can we do to stop Fast Track and start an open discussion about these trade agreements? Lilliston believes the most important thing to do right now is to contact your member of Congress and tell them to oppose Fast Track.

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“We think that there will be a bill that has not been introduced, but is expected in April. That bill will come out, and there will probably be a lot of news about that from April to May and maybe longer. They’ll have to work their way through committees, then get to the floor, and be in the House and Senate simultaneously. But this is an issue that we need to stop right here, and that will change the whole dynamic of these trade agreements,” Lilliston says.

“And we can win. Most Democrats are against Fast Track, and a lot of growing numbers of Republicans also are, just based on constitutional grounds and democracy grounds. I think you can even be in favor of trade and free trade agreements, but be against Fast Track.

We think that this is a really important opportunity to change the whole debate about trade. If we can beat back Fast Track, we [can then] have another conversation about what these trade agreements are about, why we’re negotiating them... and in whose interest are they being negotiated. And is there a way to do trade that protects public health, protects farmers, protects consumers, and protects the environment, rather than lowering standards for all those as we’ve seen in the past?”

Trade Agreements and Intellectual Property Rights

Trade agreements also often include chapters on intellectual property, which is particularly important when it comes to medicine. As a rule, drug companies are very intent on protecting their patents as long as they possibly can, and they want to do this through trade agreements. If they can set the rules through trade agreements, they can enforce their property rights around the world. But when companies retain patent rights for very long periods of time, it decreases people's access to less expensive [generic] medicines.

According to Lilliston, this is a big issue in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, because it grants drug companies legal rights to enforce their patents, and to sue governments if they feel like their patent is not being enforced. What's worse, it also allows companies to patent things that most people would agree should not be allowed to be patented, such as life forms for example.

"This is a big deal for public health and access to medicine, especially because, again, the negotiations are taking place in secret. We don't know what's in the text," Lilliston says. "We're going by what we've seen in the past, some public statements here and there, and a document that was leaked [from] Trans-Pacific Partnership. But we need to see the text. We need to understand what is at stake in intellectual property and access to medicine before we can even consider these trade agreements."

How Trade Agreements May Sabotage the Local Food Movement

The local food movement is a really fast-growing movement in the United States. Not only is there plenty of evidence supporting the idea that locally grown foods, especially if organic, are healthier for you, it's also an important part of local economic development, and reducing our carbon footprint. One of the ways in which local farmers are supported is through public programs such as farm to school programs. These programs are still small and need to grow, but it's an area that's gaining a lot of momentum.

"One of the real concerns with these trade agreements is that they're basically going to take an ax to all these efforts to support local food production, because what they say is that you cannot prejudice local," Lilliston warns. "That is a fundamental tenet of these free trade agreements. You cannot give preference to local purchasing. Obviously, that goes beyond just food. It could be any support for local businesses.

You set up a procurement program, where if it's a local business competing against a national business, you're going to give the preference to the local business. That's the kind of thing that these trade agreements will take away. The same thing if you're giving a preference to local farmers... Europe has said freely and explicitly that they're going to challenge US procurement programs once they get this trade agreement done. That's their big goal.

We're very concerned about how these trade agreements will impact the momentum and the growth [of local food]. Clearly, consumers want more locally produced food. Clearly, government programs and public spending have been part of that. We shouldn't be restricted in any way by trade agreement to support our local farmers and local businessmen and businesswomen."

Trade Agreements Also Undermine Renewable Energy Initiatives

The trade agreements may even put the kibosh on locally sourced renewable energy programs because, again, the agreements do not permit giving preference to locally produced energy. The potential effects on the environment are manifold. One example in which an existing trade agreement is driving environmental destruction is the case of the Keystone tar sands.1

Under NAFTA, Canada is required to export an ever-increasing amount of oil to the United States, so one of the major factors driving the tar sands is NAFTA, as Canada is bound to continually produce and export more and more oil. The trade agreement prevents Canada from reducing production. As you may have heard, President Obama recently vetoed the Keystone XL Pipeline,2 and the Senate failed to override it.3 However, the company that owns Keystone may very well end up challenging this decision under NAFTA.

"These are some examples of how trade rules really kind of tie our hands in moving towards more clean energy and supporting local renewable energy production," Lilliston says.

Tell Your Congressman to Oppose Fast Track

"Fast Track is coming up. We need people to oppose Fast Track, and let their member of Congress know they oppose it," Lilliston says. If we can stop Fast Track, we'll be in a much better position to beat back these damaging trade agreements, so please, take a moment to contact your Congressman, and tell him or her to oppose Fast Track. On April 18, 2015, you can also join in Global Trade Day -- a day of action to defeat free trade and investments treaties.

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