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Synthesis/Regeneration 6   (Spring 1993)

Guerrilla Gardening: A Way to Oppose NAFTA

by Maynard Kaufman, Southwest Michigan Greens

Agriculture is the main human activity on Earth and the principle influence on our planet's ecology. Over half of the inhabitants of our planet are farmers."
— Mark Ritchie

Those of us who live in countries where agriculture has been industrialized, where food has been commodified and cheapened, are so culturally removed from farming and food production that we have lost sight of its centrality. Not since 1918 have we been a half-rural, half-urban society. Now less than 2% of our population in the US are farmers. They, with the help of a lot of fossil fuel energy, machines, toxic chemicals, bankers, brokers, processors, distributors, and retailers, produce vastly more food than we need. So why should we be concerned about the impact of NAFTA on agriculture?

Free trade agreements generally have levelling effects on participating countries. Canada, which had more generous social welfare programs than the US, is losing industry to the US and both are likely to lose to Mexico which, with cheaper labor, can attract more industry. In agriculture, however, free trade between the US and Mexico might balance out. NAFTA would, it is generally assumed, facilitate existing trade patterns between the US and Mexico with grain, oilseeds and live stock flowing south and horticultural products coming north. In general, the "winners" are presumed to be US grain farmers (or rather the grain dealers) and, on a smaller scale, Mexican fruit and vegetable growers.

But the side effects of NAFTA, such as food quality, environmental impacts, "structural adjustment" as people lose jobs or ways of life, and the concentration of power in the market economy, are of far greater importance than the economic effects. As Mark Ritchie, of the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy, pointed out, deregulated trade does not benefit any participating country as such. "On the contrary, both countries pursue the interests of the transnational corporations rather than the interests of the general public." Thus the rich will continue to thrive at the expense of the poor.

President Salinas of Mexico proposed the NAFTA in hopes that economic development would help pay Mexico's debt. Even before that, he had liberalized trade policies to attract foreign investment. He privatized industries which had been state-owned, and he dismantled the ejido land tenure system. Peasant collectives were given title to some 205 million acres of Mexican farmland which they had used but did not own. This land can now be mortgaged for development, leased or sold to foreign investors. Thus Salinas hoped to increase agricultural production so that Mexico would not be dependent on imports of grain from the US or Canada. In view of these internal policies, the NAFTA might not provide any advantage to US grain traders after all.

We should be clear that when we speak of "agricultural production" we mean production for the market. NAFTA, as well as Mexico's internal policies, are designed to expand this kind of market-oriented production. As the scale of production grows, prices for corn will decline. The victims will be the Mexican peasants and subsistence farmers who are driven from the land. Mark Ritchie estimated that as many as one million Mexican families would have to move to cities or to the US where they would become "consumers." Their consumption would create some economic growth but, the market would grow at the expense of the household or subsistence economy where production is primarily for use rather than for sale. Since the industrialization of agriculture nearly always creates a heavier ecological impact, we can count this destruction of subsistence as the first of the environmental threats created by the kind of development the NAFTA would promote.

There are several other environmental costs of a free trade agreement. First, the globalization of the food system means less local consumption of local production and more processing and transportation which implies more pollution from energy use. Second, free trade agreements require the "harmonization" of environmental standards so that no trading partner is hampered by stricter standards. Standards would most likely be harmonized at the lowest common denominator. Third, lower prices for farm produce, required by agribusiness firms so that they can profit in a competitive market, push farmers to intensify production so that they can stay in business. This implies less crop rotation and diversified farming and more dependence on toxic chemicals for fertilizer and pest control. Finally, food quality would suffer from longer transportation and, with weaker environmental standards, fruits and vegetables imported from Mexico would likely have more pesticide residue. (But why should we eat fruits and vegetables grown in Mexico when we can grow them ourselves?)

We must boycott the products of transnational corporations, reclaim economic power, and build community by revitalizing local economic activity...These local activities might include community trading systems to open up non-monetary possibilities, community-supported agriculture, farmer's markets, and generally more local production for local consumers.

Food producing industries are in favor of the NAFTA because it promises more deregulation. Local or national regulations would be replaced by international treaties. "National sovereignty," said Terry Pugh of the Farmers Union in Canada, "is replaced by the market-place, which is controlled by transnational corporations." And Jonathan Schlefer, in a fairly neutral Atlantic Monthly article, emphasized the same idea: "NAFTA will, in short, free investors from political sovereignty. Governments, which at least claim to treat all people equally and to represent some common interest, will lose ground to the market."

This loss of democratic processes as we are colonized by transnational corporations is surely the most serious threat represented by free trade agreements. But, as William Greider (in Who Will Tell the People?) and many others have tried to tell us, this process is already well under way as powerful corporate lobbies control legislation or subvert, by pressure on regulatory agencies, legislation designed to protect the environment and the people. The NAFTA is the frosting on the cake already baked for the corporations.

Unless free trade agreements such as NAFTA (or GATT) recognize and include Green concerns for ecological wisdom, social justice and grassroots democracy, Greens will certainly unite in opposing them. We can, of course, press for inclusion of these concerns, as a statement from the Green Party of California does, but the corporations that benefit from free trade do so precisely by being free of these concerns. Besides, these concerns do not facilitate the kind of economic growth in GNP on which politicians are so fixated. We must also remember, as Karl Polanyi explained, that as the market economy grew it was "disembedded" from its cultural matrix. Free trade agreements are a final step in this process of disembedding so that the market economy, rather than ethics, or tradition, or government, is the ultimate power in society. The tail wags the dog.

So we need to shift public attention to a sustainable economics which provides a better balance between the corporate markets and local economic activity—along with a better balance between formal and informal economic activity. Many Greens have already proposed this on a theoretical level. But Robyn Eckersley is correct in the conclusion of a book length study of Green thinking on political economy: "the Green movement will ultimately stand or fall on its ability to generate practical alternatives to the advanced industrial way of life."

To develop practical alternatives, we must be willing to consider a change in lifestyle and bring our concern for local empowerment into reality. We must boycott the products of transnational corporations, reclaim economic power, and build community by revitalizing local economic activity. For many of us this requires that we change where and how we live. I retired early from an academic career to live a more selfreliant life, teach homesteading skills on our organic farm and generally work for community economic revitalization. Many others who have come through the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970's have similarly curtailed their dependence on the market economy. We certainly do need to buy back and move back to the land. It would be a sad finale to the Jeffersonian vision of an agrarian society of free and independent farmers if we were to end up, after the fossil fuel era is over, as serfs on the corporate-owned farms.

The reason local economic initiatives are necessary has been explained by British Green writer James Robertson. He has distinguished between work which must be done at the top, or on a political level—decolonization—and work which must be done to build more local self-reliance so people can be liberated from dependence on over-developed institutions such as the market economy. Decolonization and liberation are two sides of the same coin. Greens should, of course, continue to seek political office because it is there that much of the work of decolonization has to be done.

But it would be foolish to seek decolonization, to curtail the market economy (or create a recession), until we have developed the practical alternatives on the local level. These local activities might include community trading systems to open up non-monetary possibilities, community-supported agriculture, farmer's markets, and generally more local production for local consumers. The Green proposal for a Food Circle Project is especially important here as it seeks to close the gap between local producers and consumers.

Corporations in control of the food industry have only as much economic power as consumers give them. As long as we buy food from the "global supermarket", we empower it and, as our review of NAFTA shows, disempower ourselves. We must become guerrilla gardeners to fight the corporate food system!

Greens who want to practice ecological wisdom and live within the natural energy flows of the ecosystem—and become liberated from dependence on the corporate food system—will want to raise at least some of their own food. Millions of Americans already do this, usually in an apolitical or recreational manner. The National Gardening Association, which sponsors annual surveys of gardening activity, found that in recent years more or less half of the households in this country raised some of their food in backyard gardens. The value of this production for use from year to year was calculated at 13 to 18 billion dollars, roughly equal to the value of all the corn raised in the United States each year.

We should understand that there are virtually no advocates for non-monetized economic activity because government and business both seek growth in the market economy—for revenue and for profit. Other institutions, religious or educational, are similarly dependent on a share of the cash flow. Will Greens support these non-monetized community activities?

Many people already have more time than money. If the NAFTA is approved and more manufacturing moves to Mexico and if the transnational corporations and their employees pay even fewer taxes to support social welfare programs in the US, such self-help activities may find widespread public acceptance. They are, as James Robertson argues in his more recent book, Future Wealth, enabling to people and conserving of resources. Given our key values, Greens are uniquely oriented to develop these humble but necessary practical alternatives and thereby gain support at election time. "Guerrilla gardening" is more than just a metaphor for local economic activity; as the food system comes under corporate control we need to reclaim gardening, and the land, as a political activity.

For sources of quotations and for further reading on these issues, see the following:

Culture and Agriculture, Vol. 43 (Spring 1992).

Mark Ritchie, "Free Trade versus Sustainable Agriculture: The Implications of NAFTA." The Ecologist, 22 (Sept-Oct, 1992).

Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957, p. 57.

Robyn Eckersley, Environmental and Political Theory: Toward an Ecocentric Approach. New York: State University of New York Press, 1992.

James Robertson, The Sane Alternative: A Choice of Futures. St. Paul: River Basin Publishing Co., 1978.

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