Global trade impacts on local food and farming were the topic of debate by a panel including the former Assistant Deputy Administrator of International Trade Policy for the USDA at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law Friday.
Panelist Carmen Gonzalez, Professor at Seattle University’s School of Law, said trade practices must protect local farmers, and that broad policies like the recently passed Farm Bill and global and international trade arrangements leave small and local family farms to fend for themselves, both internationally and domestically.
Gonzalez said that for a local farmer to compete in a globalized economy, the person shopping at the store plays a key role.
“From a consumer standpoint, you need to know what you are eating, where it is coming from and who is producing it. And to support the things that are in harmony with your own values,” Gonzalez said. “In terms of supporting small farmers, supporting organic and semi-organic agriculture, thinking about the carbon footprint of how it is being produced. So, education, labeling, all of that.”
About twenty people in the audience for one of the panel sessions focused questions on how trade policies and the Farm Bill impact the ability of small farmers to compete on a global scale.
“After the panel, there was a part I thought was really interesting — they were talking about how local and small farmers have the ability to add value to their products whether by certification or whatever. However, from what it sounds like, that’s not something that international trade allows for them to do,” said Lindsy Iglesias, attendee and Ph.D student of Entomology at UF. “They aren’t allowed to charge extra or higher prices for their products. If a local or small farmer wanted to sell internationally.”
“I like to know where I’m purchasing from, everything from food to artisan products,“ said Iglesias.
Panelists’ comments all pointed back to the consumer and food buyer as the main way to support local food and farming, in an environment where subsidies still dominate large agriculture, both domestically and internationally.
Supporting a small farmer means buying locally grown and produced food, said James Grueff, Former Assistant Deputy Administrator, International Trade Policy, USDA.
Local farms must seek support at the local level because broader government programs like international exports of food production, national subsidies and the Farm Bill do not address local farming, Grueff said.
Grueff described the Farm bill as a continuation of the traditional US approach to supporting U.S. farmers, saying it does not add any help for local farmer working to compete against larger farm operations receiving subsidies and exporting their goods.
The bill targets the farmers already in the program and changes the way the program makes payments to them, Grueff said.
“This idea of significant reform, moving away from subsidies, is not popular in Congress. Sure there are changes, but the changes are in the form of subsidies, not the subsidies themselves,” Grueff said. “It is very clear that more creative solutions are nowhere on the agenda of Congress. When this topic comes up, Congress backs away.
Gonzalez attributes much of the pressure on local farmers worldwide to U.S. trade policies with subsidies and legislation like the Farm Bill.
Apart from marketing products differently, the small farmer has little leverage in competing, she said, but there are ways.
“Through long-term contractual relationships, through farmers’ markets – that’s a way of establishing that kind of link, that kind of loyalty, and elevating the consciousness of consumers so they are very thoughtful about what they are purchasing,” she said.
“I think people are willing to pay a premium. We have the benefit of being a wealthier nation. We have the luxury of paying a little bit more to get highly nutritious food,” said attendee Deborah Andrews, PhD student of Anthropology, UF.
“I’m a big proponent of local. We are pretty lucky that we live in Gainesville so there are a lot of products available locally, whether its vegetables or fruit, milk, dairy or meat,” Andrews said.
“In the supermarket I shop in, I can buy organic produce if I want to pay more. That’s the way it works,” said Grueff.
The debate took place at the UF Levin College of Law’s 20th Anniversary Public Interest Environmental Conference. The conference runs through Sunday. About 250 attendees registered to see 30 speakers on nine panels during the three-day conference.