MADISON, Wisc. – Long before Food First author Frances Moore Lappé took the stage to contribute her expertise, food policy had emerged as a central theme of the grassroots trade policy conference held here April 26-27.

Sponsored by a range of local, state, national and global organizations, the two-day gathering of hundreds of trade, labor and immigration activists featured interactive workshops, presentations by featured speakers like Lappé and a fair trade fair where participants could buy and sell goods produced and exported under fair trade conditions. Over coffee grown on farmer-run collective fincas in Nicaragua and Oaxaca, participants networked, shared literature and wrote letters opposing Fast Track legislation.

John Kinsman, a Wisconsin dairy farmer and president of the Family Farm Defenders, said that he had seen the decline of family farms from 33,000 in 1992 to 17,000 today. “More and more farms are becoming part-time farms where husband and wife both work other jobs,” he said. “The dignity of the producer of food is destroyed.” He founded the Defenders partly as a means to combat that trend.

One of the international presenters at the conference, who asked not to be named because of threats of violence in his home country of Guatemala, said authorities had seized coffee that he had sought to bring from a cooperative there. He spoke against the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement as threatening the lives and culture of Guatemala’s Mayan Indian majority. “Ninety-five percent of the people in my part of the country do work somehow connected with the coffee trade,” he said. “The free trade agreement is just a continuation of the ethnicide. What they couldn’t do through war, they’re doing through trade.”

Lappé echoed these comments when she noted that “there are over 150,000 ‘coffee refugees’ worldwide” – displaced by the expansion of coffee plantations everywhere from Central America to India and Korea.

Mario Monroy, a founder of the Mexican Action Network on Free Trade, said NAFTA resulted in the dumping of astonishing amounts of corn on the Mexican market, devastating local producers. Now, he says, genetically engineered sterile seed from Monsanto is the only corn available to Mexican planters. “You must understand that for Mexicans, corn is not simply a product. It is a part of our culture.” Monroy pointed out that when a nation loses self-sufficiency in food staples – “food sovereignty” – it is at the mercy of foreign interests.

Those interests are primarily multinational corporations. “Ten corporations account for half of the food and drink items we consume,” said Lappé. With the additional power these corporations possess, they have been more able to undermine government social welfare programs and industrial union organizing. Other speakers at the conference documented these interactions and effects.

But the kinds of organizing demonstrated at the conference, from consumer consciousness to legislative action, were really threatening to those in power, Lappé said. “I’ll bet you never realized fair trade could be such a subversive act.”

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Babette Grunow
Babette Grunow

Babette Grunow is an activist writing from Wisconsin. She and Gary Grass host the radio program Drive Time From River West on WXRW.

Gary Grass
Gary Grass

Gary Grass writes from Wisconsin where he was active in the movement for lead free water in Milwaukee. He and Babette Grunow host the radio program Drive Time From River West on WXRW.