NAFTA and food policy - What’s at stake?

Trade policy affects the food we grow, sell, buy and eat and who has power and control up and down the food chain. On August 16th, Canada, Mexico and the United States began to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Food Secure Canada looks at what this could mean for food policy, with links to further information and civil society resources.


Why now?

NAFTA came into force in 1994. In 2016, Donald Trump made protectionism a key plank of his successful bid for the US Presidency. The complexity and secrecy of trade negotiations have led to democratic and accountability deficits, enabling populist politicians to take advantage of the resulting mistrust. In April, Prime Minister Trudeau and President Peña Nieto persuaded Trump to renegotiate, rather than exit, NAFTA. Since the US government demanded the talks and is so far the only party to release its negotiating objectives, its agenda has shaped the debate.

This useful primer from The Globe and Mail, NAFTA, Trump and Canada, gives general background as well as rolling news updates on developments in the talks.


Food policy on the table

The overhaul takes place as Canada works towards its first national food policy and as the government champions agri-food as a growth industry. The big risk is that the drive for exports will override health, environmental and rural economy interests in the NAFTA renegotiation, leading to further corporate concentration among food producers and retailers. The opportunity is that this is a chance to challenge notions of “free trade” with a trade model that values social and environmental justice.

Here are some of the issues that can affect agricultural and food policy, directly or indirectly:


Supply management of dairy, poultry and eggs

Canada’s supply management system of fixed prices, production quotas and tariffs for dairy, poultry and eggs may be under threat from the stated US objective to remove non-tariff barriers to its agricultural exports. So far, Trudeau has undertaken to defend supply management, although it has powerful critics within Canada, including Dominic Barton, chair of the government’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth.

Food Secure Canada contributed to a thoughtful paper Towards Supply Management 2.0 by Union Paysanne. It explores ways to renew the system to better meet its original objectives in a changing rural landscape, including access for new farmers and championing local food. The National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) have also mounted robust defences of supply management (see links below).

Environmental and health standards

The food system has a huge impact on greenhouse gas emissions, sustainability and health outcomes. Like NAFTA, Canada’s food systems are currently under review. A Food Policy for Canada is about renewing our food systems, from farm to fork. Trade policy and cross-border corporate interests should not impede or discourage national efforts to raise environmental, health or nutrition standards in this policy area, or any other. Indeed, many civil society groups are calling for the introduction of a strong environmental chapter into the trade agreement.

NAFTA’s Chapter 11 established an Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) system. It is a highly contentious provision, granting companies the power to sue governments in private courts for compensation if national legislation, including environmental protection, gets in the way of their investment plans. It has predominantly been used by US companies to sue Canada. Civil society demands its elimination (see sources below), but Trudeau’s position is not yet clear.

How trade policy influences nutrition is a fascinating area of research, looking at changing dietary patterns as food and ingredient costs change and markets are exposed to new retailers and advertising. Mexico: Public Health, Rising Obesity and the NAFTA Effect is a Civil Eats article from 2013. The recent article, How NAFTA may have made Canada fat, from The Toronto Star is based on research in the Canadian Medical Association Journal about the impact on obesity of reduced tariffs on high fructose corn syrup. The unsustainable public health care costs attributed to the rise in diet-related diseases should factor into Canada’s trade policy. Trade regulation may be one way to address these diet-related health risks by acknowledging the health and environmental impacts of products that cross the Canadian border. 

Procurement issues

“Buy American” is a key Trump demand in the renegotiation. This puts procurement issues firmly on the table, although his primary focus is on big infrastructure projects. Safeguarding the right to local and sustainable food procurement by institutions and all levels of government is a longstanding demand of the food movement. It has been fought for, not always successfully, in negotiations around the internal Canadian Free Trade Agreement (CFTA) and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Europe, as well as for NAFTA.

The introduction of Country of Origin Labelling (COOL) is another demand being championed by civil society, including the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), see below.


What is civil society saying?

Civil society experts outline what they want to defend, eliminate or introduce in NAFTA:


Team Canada and the negotiation

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has announced a “Team Canada” approach, inviting opposition politicians, First Nations, business and labour leaders (but not civil society) to a NAFTA Advisory Council. The government’s public online consultation is still open.

Transparency in trade negotiations was a key demand of the Liberals in opposition. Minister Freeland will address the House of Commons Trade Committee about Canadian objectives on August 14th, just two days before negotiations start.


* Thanks to Sophia Murphy, PhD candidate at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES) at UBC who was interviewed for this article.

Photo credit: Mexico Institute