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GATT: a bad big idea.

The Reagan and Bush Administrations, working mostly in secret, began in 1986 to make a set of changes in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (also known as GATT) adopted after World War II by the United States and seventeen other nations. The proposed changes would have dire economic and ecological effects on the more than 100 nations that now subscribe to the agreement, and would significantly reduce the freedom of their citizens. Whether or not the Clinton Administration will continue the Reagan-Bush agitation for these changes remains to be seen.

If the proposed revisions in GATT are adopted, it will mean that every farmer in every member nation will be thrown into competition with every other farmer. Farmers and other workers in the "developed" countries will find themselves competing with workers who earn nine cents an hour or two dollars a day. With restrictions lowered to international minimums, and under increasing pressure to make up in volume for drastically reduced unit prices, this will be a competition in land exploitation. Conservation practices now in use (and they are already inadequate) will, of necessity, be abandoned; land rape and the use of toxic chemicals will increase, as will the exploitation of people.

American farmers, who must continue to buy their expensive labor-replacing machines, fuel, and chemicals on markets entirely controlled by the suppliers, will be forced to market their products in competition with the cheapest hand-labor of the poor countries. And the poor countries, needing to feed their own people, will see the food vacuumed off their plates by lucrative export markets. The supranational corporations, meanwhile, will be able to slide about at will over the face of the globe to wherever products can be bought cheapest and sold highest.

It is easy to see who will have the freedom of this international "free market." The proposed GATT revisions, as one of their advocates has said, are "exactly what exporters need" - the assumption being, as usual, that what is good for exporters is good for everybody. But what is good for exporters is by no means always good for producers, and in fact these proposed revisions expose a longstanding difference of interest between agribusiness marketers and farmers.

We in the United States have seen how unrestrained competition among farmers, increasing surpluses and driving down prices, has directly served the purposes of the agribusiness corporations. The large corporations, which have thus remained hugely and consistently profitable right through an era of severe economic hardship in rural America, are clearly in a position to take excellent advantage of such competition. The proposed GATT revisions would permit them to practice the same exploitation without restraint in the world at large.

The U.S. proposals on agriculture were, in fact, drafted mostly by Daniel Amstutz, formerly a Cargill executive, and they are backed by other large supranational corporations. Made to order for the grain traders and agrochemical companies that operate in the "global economy," these proposals aim both to eliminate farm price supports and production controls, and to attempt to force all member nations to conform to health and safety standards that would be set in Rome by Codex Alimentarius, a group of international scientific bureaucrats that is under the influence of the agribusiness corporations. Pressure for these revisions has come solely from these corporations and their allies. There has been no popular movement in favor of them, although there have been some popular movements in opposition.

What the GATT revisions actually propose is a revolution as audacious, far-reaching, and sudden as any the world has seen. Though they would deny to the people of some 108 nations any choice in the matter of protecting their land, their farmers, their food supply, or their health, these proposals were not drafted and, if adopted, would not be implemented by anybody elected by the people of any of the 108 nations. Their purpose is to bypass all local, state, and national governments in order to subordinate the interests of those governments and of the people they represent to the interests of a global "free market" run by a few supranational corporations.

By this single device, if it should be implemented, these corporations would destroy the protections that have been won by generations of conservationists, labor organizers, consumer advocates - and, indeed, by democrats and lovers of freedom. This is an unabashed attempt to replace government with economics, and to destroy any sort of local (let alone personal) self-determination.

The intended effect would be to centralize control of all prices and standards in the international food economy, and to place this control in the hands of the corporations that are best able to profit from it. The revised GATT would thus be a license issued to a privileged few for an all-out economic assault on the lands and peoples of the world. It would establish a "free" global economy that would be a tighter enclosure than most Americans, at least so far, have experienced.

The issue here really is not whether international trade shall be free, but whether or not it makes sense for a country - or, for that matter, a region - to destroy its own capacity to produce its own food. How can a government, entrusted with the safety and health of its people, conscientiously barter away in the name of an economic idea that people's ability to feed itself? And if people lose their ability to feed themselves, how can they be said to be free?

The supporters of these GATT revisions assume that there is no longer any possibility of escape from the global economy, and furthermore that there is no need for such an escape. They assume that all nations are already properly subservient to the global economy, and that the highest purpose of national governments is to serve as attorneys for the supranational corporations. They assume also (like far too many farmers and consumers) that there is no possibility of a food economy that is not decided upon "at the top" in some center of power.

But in so assuming, these people unwittingly have provided the rest of us with our best occasion so far to understand and to talk about the need for sound and reasonably self-sufficient local food economies. They have forced us to realize that politics and economics are in fact as inseparable as are economics and ecology. They have made it clear that if we want to be free, we will have to free ourselves somehow from the purposes of these great supranational concentrations of greed, wealth, and power. They have forced us to realize that GATT may be able to set the standards for governments, but that it cannot set the standards for individuals and local communities - unless those individuals and communities will allow it to do so. They have, in other words, made certain truths self-evident.

When very important persons have plunder in mind, they characteristically invent ugly euphemisms for what they intend to do, and the promoters of the GATT revisions are no exception:

Tariffication refers to the recommended process by which all controls on imports of agricultural products will be replaced by tariffs, which will then be reduced or eliminated within five to ten years. This would have the effect of opening U.S. markets (and all others) to unlimited imports.

Harmonization refers to a process by which the standards of trade among the member nations would be brought into "harmony." This would mean lowering all standards regulating food safety, toxic residues, inspections, packaging and labeling, etc., that are higher than the standards set by Codex Alimentarius.

And Fast Track refers to a capitulation by which Congress has ceded to the President the authority to make an international trade agreement, and to draft the enabling legislation, which then is not subject to Congressional amendment, and which must be accepted or rejected as a whole within ninety session days.

The proposed GATT revisions offend against democracy and freedom, against people's natural concern for bodily and ecological health, and against the very possibility of a sustainable food supply. Apart from the corporate ambition to gather the wealth and power of the world into fewer and fewer hands, these revisions make no sense, for they ignore or reduce to fantasy all the realities with which they are concerned: ecological, agricultural, economic, political, and cultural. Their great evil originates in their underlying assumption that all the world may safely be subjected to the desires and controls of a centralizing power.

This is what "harmonization" really envisions: not the necessary small local harmonies that can be made among neighbors and between people and their land, but rather the "harmony" that might exist between exploiter and exploited after all protest is silenced and all restraints abandoned. The would-be exploiters of the world would like to assume - it would be so easy for them if they could assume - that the world is everywhere uniform and conformable to their desires.

The world, on the contrary, is made up of an immense diversity of countries, climates, topographies, regions, ecosystems, soils, and human cultures - so many as to be endlessly frustrating to centralizing ambition, and this perhaps explains the attempt to impose a legal uniformity upon it. However, anybody who is interested in real harmony, in economic and ecological justice, will see immediately that such justice requires not international uniformity but international generosity toward local diversity.

And anybody interested in solving, rather than profiting from, the problems of food production and distribution will see that in the long run the safest food supply is a local food supply, not a supply that is dependent on a global economy. Nations, and regions within nations, must be left free - and should be encouraged - to develop the local food economies that best suit local needs and local conditions.

Wendell Berry is the author of "The Unsettling of America" and some two dozen other books. He writes and farms in Kentucky. This essay is adapted from "Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays," to be published this fall by Pantheon.
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Title Annotation:General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
Author:Berry, Wendell
Publication:The Progressive
Date:May 1, 1993
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