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Contemplating the local impact from America’s next supersized trade deal

Flickr user Public Citizen
Yard signs placed in front of hotels in Leesburg, VA during TPP negotiations in September 2012


Trade representatives from twelve countries have been discussing the Trans-Pacific Partnership for four years. They’re discussing removing tariffs, protecting the environment, and stopping the piracy of copyrighted  material - all in the name of freer international trade.

Not much is known about what’s in this agreement, but based on what’s been leaked, here’s what we think we know about a couple of key components that will affect Californians: cows and computers.

On the farm

For the state’s dairy farmers, if this new deal works anything like the North American Free Trade Agreement did, it could be bad news. Lynne McBride, with the California Farmers Union, represents about 200 dairy farmers.

“We realized that imported agricultural products were going to come to the United States that didn’t meet our health, safety, environmental and labor standards,” says McBride about NAFTA. “And we thought that would put our farmers at a disadvantage.”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership will cover countries ranging from Chile to Thailand. One concern is that with labor laws and standards of living varying so much among them, it’s bound to be problematic. McBride uses Mexico as an example, “The difference in what’s being paid to a farmworker in Mexico is significantly different than here in the United States and certainly in CA,” she says.

According to a U.C. Davis report, farmworkers in the U.S. earn about eight times more than a farmworker in rural Mexico. Lower pay means that milk from abroad costs less than U.S.-made milk products, which can hurt U.S dairy farmers’ sales. The lack of regulations on water and air pollution in some countries also brings down the cost and quality of imported products.

Then there’s the country of origin labels. The National Farmers Union fought for ten years to get them signed into law in 2007.

“Check your label, when you see it on different products in the grocery store,” McBride says. “Then it’s up to the consumer to make the decision about whether they want to purchase that.”

Some Canadian and U.S. meat processors have argued that the mandatory labeling increases their costs. It’s up to $100 more per cow from Canada, because they need to segregate the meat products.

That drives up the price for potential U.S. consumers. So Canada is suing through the World Trade Organization, hoping to force the United States to abandon country of origin labeling.

That is another concern with the Trans-Pacific Partnership: that it will allow other countries to contest — and sometimes change — laws that were passed democratically here.

Logging on

Another area of concern that’s been made public through a leaked version  of the TPP involves computers and the tech industry. Maira Sutton of the Electronic Frontier Foundation says the most troubling part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership involves a form of copyright protection called “Digital Rights Management.”

“Digital Rights Management, DRM, has been on phones, and software, on computers and ebooks, and they’re there to lock up content, in theory to prevent that content from being uploaded to the internet and being copied and shared illegally,” says Sutton.

One problem is that Digital Rights Management could prevent consumers from using their software on more than one device.

“You might have a software that you bought for editing your photos,” says Sutton. “And that software might come with DRM, and the DRM might prevent you from being able to move that software that you bought fairly and moving [it] to a new computer or new device that you have.”

Currently in the U.S., we get around this with exceptions granted by the Library of Congress. For example, an exception a few years ago made it legal for cell phone-owners to break the DRM and change carriers. The trouble is, those exceptions have to be renewed every three years, and sometimes renewal is denied.

Sutton worries that if this very restrictive DRM language becomes part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, then it will become even harder for the tech industry in the United States to get exceptions.

“Our laws are going to have to conform to these policies,” Sutton says, “And that really ties the hands of U.S. lawmakers from being able to pass copyright law and digital policy that really impacts and supports the interests of users and tech companies, and everybody, really.”

Keeping Secrets

Those are some of the potential problems; here are some of the possible positives of a trade agreement.  Again, this is speculation on what the Trans-Pacific Partnership might include. For the U.S., trade deals can make it easier to sell our products abroad by removing foreign tariffs. They can also be used to standardize child labor bans, or water and air protection, says Murray Hiebert of the non-profit, bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in D.C.

“Trade agreements for the most part are good,” says Hiebert, “and beyond just the trade side of things, they do boost ties and relationships at levels that we haven’t yet anticipated.”

As a Southeast Asia specialist, Hiebert has seen the positive effects of trade deals in places like Vietnam as well, where a shift to exports improved rural life.

“You started to see textile garment companies coming in, tennis shoe companies, Nike,” Hiebert says. “You would start seeing people building new houses, buying motorbikes, and so you would see people yanking themselves out of poverty rather quickly.”

Now the challenge will be getting so many countries to agree on a deal that extends over so many areas, from agriculture to pharmaceuticals to the environment and intellectual property. Ultimately, all will have to agree on the final version, and although the secrecy of the process is troubling to some, people like Murray Hiebert say secrecy has a purpose. He thinks it’s a bit like a football game.

“Maybe football has the most complicated playbooks,” Hiebert says. “Everybody has sort of their bottom line, but it’s impossible — if everybody knew what the bottom line was for the other guy, there’d be almost no room for compromise.”

Just last week, during talks in Singapore, the twelve member countries could not reach an agreement on agricultural tariffs. Once a final version is hammered out, there will be even more voices chiming in, from legislators to corporations, to non-profits, all of whom are part of the team but haven’t been invited to the game yet.