The public protests over recent grand-jury decisions have brought to mind an event whose 15th anniversary has just passed: the so-called “Battle in Seattle” over global trade.
Thankfully, we haven’t seen anything in recent days that approaches the troubles in Seattle at a World Trade Organization meeting where tens of thousands of protestors let loose their fury. To make an ideological point about trade policy, they inflicted millions of dollars in property damage on local businesses. The mayor declared a state of emergency.
I remember watching the riots unfold on television and reading about them in the newspaper. The hooliganism astonished me. Although I’ve always known that some people oppose the free flow of goods and services across borders, I didn’t know that their views could explode into such unthinking rage.
Americans have a constitutional right to complain: The First Amendment protects our ability to speak, petition, and assemble. Yet we must always guard against the possibility of passion boiling into violence.
The mayhem of Seattle served as a wake-up call for farmers. We can’t afford to let the thugs prevail. Our livelihoods – and those of most business – depend on foreign markets. The typical American corn farmer like me exports about one-third of his crop to people in other countries.
So we resolved to fight back. In a sense, we decided to protest the protests. Instead of smashing store windows, however, we committed ourselves to reasoned debate and sound argument.
Several friends and I started a nonprofit group called Truth about Trade. Soon after, we realized that many of the people who want to deny us the ability to sell what we grow also seek to deny us modern tools of agriculture that help us grow as much as we do in a manner that is sustainable. They’ve gone from rioting in the cities to terrorizing the countryside, as they attack field trials everywhere from Italy to the Philippines. So we expanded our vision and lengthened our name to Truth About Trade & Technology.
We’ve spent the last 15 years calling for new free-trade agreements and better access to agricultural technology, in the United States and around the world. We write weekly columns, publish economic research, speak to groups in the U.S. and around the world whenever invited and mobilize a global network of farmers who share our goals. We seek to engage hearts and minds rather than play to fear and ignorance.
We’ve certainly seen progress, as trade has expanded to every corner of the planet. Just as farmers in Iowa want to sell soybeans to China, growers in Burkina Faso hope to harvest the cotton that will make clothes for Europeans. Even so, we must do more: President Obama should push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, allowing us to improve our trade around the Pacific Rim. Congress can give him a boost by approving Trade Promotion Authority, which will help our trade diplomats as they negotiate.
Some opinion polls suggest that American attitudes toward trade have remained stable over the last generation. Earlier this year, Gallup found that 54 percent of Americans see trade as an “opportunity for growth” and 38 percent see it as a “threat to the economy.” Twenty years ago, Gallup’s numbers were almost exactly the same: 53 percent and 38 percent.
I’d describe this as mostly favorable, but leavened by a large dose of skepticism—and evidence that we need to keep making our case.
On technology, we encourage governments everywhere to adopt regulatory policies that support farmers and food production, rather than smother innovation and raise prices on consumers. Just last month, we saw good news in Colorado and Oregon, where voters rejected unwise food-labeling initiatives. The result in Colorado was decisive, but in Oregon it was disturbingly close. A recount concluded only last week.
The experience provided more proof that we still have plenty of work to do.
In a democratic society, the debates never cease: trade and technology always have enemies, so they’ll always need champions. As much as I hope we never see another “Battle in Seattle,” I know that plenty of battles lie ahead.
Tim Burrack raises corn, soybeans and pork on a NE Iowa family farm. He serves as Vice-Chairman and volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).