(This article appeared on the blog PeoplePlanetProphet on 1 November 2014)
Christians of all stripes should be concerned about the proposed free trade agreement between the European Union (EU) and the United States (US).
In the book of Exodus we read of the Israelites’ suffering at the hands of Pharaoh, especially when Moses began agitating for their freedom. Pharaoh suddenly decreed that the Hebrew workforce had to produce the same amount of bricks as they had previously but without straw being provided. What had been a difficult task quickly became a torturous one.
The moral of the story – that the weak suffer when the powerful abuse their power – is one repeated throughout the biblical record. It is a trend that, sadly, continues to this day. And it is also a theme much apparent in the proposed free trade agreement between the EU and the US, the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). There are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, there is a rush to the bottom in terms of standards in various important areas of life, notably food. Few trade barriers currently exist between the EU and the US and the crux of the matter is really about ‘harmonising’ standards between the two jurisdictions. The problem is that this favours lower US food standards, including on safety, labour rights, animal welfare and environmental protection.
In practice, for consumers, this will mean ready access to American meat fed with growth promoters and hormones, washed with chlorine and lactic acid, containing proven endocrine disrupters, and that cannot be tested for a parasitic nematode worm, trichinae.
And for many of our family farms it will mean continued stifling pressure to get bigger or get out of business. Yet this is at a time when an increasing number of experts are recognising that small- and medium-sized farms not only feed the majority of the world, but produce food more efficiently than big ones when measured on a per hectare basis.
The second major concern with the TTIP is that it subverts democracy. Not only have many of the negotiations been conducted in secret, but civil society organisations that represent the wishes of ordinary people and their everyday lives have been consulted about the proposed deal much less than multinational corporations (MNCs), who represent the narrow interests of their shareholders.
In addition, the inclusion of something called investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms in the deal would provide legal means for MNCs to overrule and sue nation states for introducing legislation that impinged on their investments, such as banning a particularly toxic chemical.
The story from Exodus reminds us that power needs to be challenged and held to account, by the Church most of all. In the proud tradition of Moses and the prophets, we cannot pick and choose when to apply our biblical mandate for justice. We cannot passionately campaign against unfair trade in the Global South and then dispassionately ignore it on our own doorstep.
But we can indeed remember that business involves relationships between real people and with God’s creation, that the economy should exist to create a flourishing world for everyone and everything, and that all trade should be, can be, must be fair.
Gloria in excelsis Deo.