Losing the family farm

By Andrea Perera

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Standing on the edge of one of the few remaining family farms in the United States, a group of Thai and American organic farmers looked out over an endless expanse of corn and soybean fields.

Here in central Illinois, three farmers from Surin province were face-to-face with one of the major threats behind the US-Thai Free Trade Agreement: subsidized US agribusiness.

"Fifty years ago this whole area used to be small family-operated farms, now mostly all of the land is either owned or leased to large agricultural corporations," said Thomas Spaulding, a farmer at Angelic Organic Farm, which stands as a small reminder of traditional agriculture in a sea of monocropped and chemically farmed fields.

"This is what we're afraid of happening to our farms in northeast Thailand," replied Kanya Onsri, a small-scale rice farmer from Surin province.

Phakphum Inpaen, Onsri, and Arat Saengubon exchanged hardship stories with Thomas Spaulding as part of a speaking tour of the US organized by the Educational Network for Global and Grassroots Exchange (ENGAGE), a US-based non-profit and Oxfam partner organization started by former students of a study-abroad program based in Khon Kaen.

During the three-week tour, they spoke tomore than 1,000 people about the threat the US-Thai FTA negotiations hold for Thai small-scale farmers. They told audiences that the US-Thai FTA is poised to allow unnaturally cheap products to flood Thai markets drowning out Thai production, endangering Thailand's biodiversity, and forcing Thailand to accept the importation and production of unlabeled genetically modified food products.

Increased dumping

According to the Alternative Agriculture Network, approximately 400,000 farming families have been affected by cheap imports of corn and soybeans since Thailand joined the World Trade Organization in 1994. Thai farmers are worried that the US-Thai FTA will worsen this problem by increasing imports of US-grown corn and soybeans which can sell at artificially low prices because of the approximately $50 billion dollars the US government uses to subsidize corn and soybean production from 1995-2003.

While in Washington DC, the Thai delegation spoke with two Mexican farmers who were raising awareness about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which illustrates the impact of signing a free trade agreement with the US. Pedro Jose Torres Ochoa, a Mexican corn farmer, said that since Mexico signed NAFTA in 1994 more then two million Mexican farming families have migrated from their farms as a result of artificially cheap corn imports from the US.

Threats to intellectual property rights

Inpaen, Onsri, and Saengubon also expressed Thai farmer's opposition to the intellectual property rights (IPR) package favored by the US, which allows life forms, such as plants and seeds, to be patented by multinational corporations. The IPR system favors technologically advanced countries without requiring companies to secure prior approval for experimenting on another country's biodiversity or to share benefits with the country of origin.

"This allows US companies to profit off of the rich biodiversity of Thailand," said Arat Saengubon.

Thai farmers are worried that the IPR package put forward by the US will weaken Thailand's ability to protect its most prized plant and seed varieties including Jasmine rice.

"If we lose Jasmine rice then we are losing the most important resource of the poor, we'll lose our livelihood," said Phakphum Inpaen.

Controlling the food chain

The tour participants also worry about the spread of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Thailand due to pressure from US negotiators. Thai farmers fear that the two laws currently prohibiting commercial production of GMO seeds and requiring the labeling of GMO food products in Thailand are in danger of being repealed in exchange for increased market access for Thai-produced chicken and shrimp. An increase in GMO foods, argue the farmers, will not benefit small-scale farmers, but instead will give large agribusinesses more ability to control the food chain.

During the tour, the Thai farmers met with various American groups resisting free trade agreements.

"Free trade is destroying communities in Thailand just like it is destroying communities here in Maine," said Laura Millay, Project Coordinator for Food and Medicine, a US-based workers rights organization campaigning against free trade agreements. Millay estimates that approximately 20,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost in Maine since 2000 as a result of free trade policies.

Oxfam America provided funding to ENGAGE to support the farmer's tour and their work educating Americans about the US-Thai Free Trade Agreement. The goal was to encourage a free-flowing exchange of information about shared experiences.

Throughout the six-city tour, Americans asked how they could help Thai farmers. Onsri, Inpaen, and Saengubon urged students, consumers, religious groups, non-profit organizations, and elected officials to call for a more democratic negotiation process for both Thai and US citizens. Currently free trade agreements can be ratified in Thailand by the Prime Minister without ever passing parliament.