Food and Free Trade

I just finished reading Stolen Harvest, which is a book written by Vandana Shiva that takes a look at the industrialization of the global food system. Since I am working Q.EWB’s food systems portfolio this year, I thought I would share and ‘unpack’ a few noteworthy quotes from the book. The author’s main argument is that food security, sovereignty and sustainability are threatened by globalisation and free trade.

‘Free Trade’ (not to be confused with ‘Fair Trade’) is the increasingly dominant model for international trade in today’s world. Essentially, free trade does exactly what its name suggests; it allows corporations to engage in business with as few restrictions as possible in order to maximise the efficiency, mobility and ultimate accumulation of capital. ‘Trade liberalization’ is the process of implementing laws and policies that remove ‘barriers to trade’ in pursuit of a free trade global economy that is guided by the ‘invisible hand’ of the market.

Free trade is codified within the mandate of the world’s central trade power structure, the World Trade Organization (WTO). Critics of this regulatory body, like Shiva, argue that it enforces divisive trade policies that perpetuate and widen the socioeconomic gap between the Global North and the Global South. In spite of these critiques, free trade continues to be the economic approach of choice, as more and more free trade agreements are being negotiated and signed into force.

In the context of the global food system, Shiva does a good job of defining the central problem associated with free trade:

“The notion of rights has been turned on its head under globalization and free trade. The right to produce for oneself or consume according to cultural priorities and safety concerns has been rendered illegal according to new trade rules. The right of corporations to force-feed citizens of the world with culturally inappropriate and hazardous foods has been made absolute. The right to food, the right to safety, the right to culture are all being treated as trade barriers that need to be dismantled.”

Essentially, free trade places corporate rights above human rights. Free trade agreements like the recently-completed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the more established General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) treat corporate profits as paramount, and contain rules that prevent governments and citizens from enacting laws or engaging in behaviours that could interfere with corporations’ ability to earn profits. Shiva provides ample examples of what this looks like in practice within the context of the global food system.

Another critical balance that must be maintained is between economic growth and environmental sustainability. Shiva argues that a pure free trade economy cannot come into being without sacrificing the future of our environment:

 “Since all environmental regulations restrict environmentally destructive commerce, they are trade-restrictive according to the WTO, hence illegal under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade… Since environmental deregulation is an essential part of trade liberalization, “free trade” and the protection of the environment cannot coexist.”

Shiva supports her case against the commodification of food with a number of environmentally-based arguments, ranging from the threat of “superpests / superweeds,” to the dangers of intensified chemical input use, to the collapse of marine ecosystems.

Another dramatic downside to free trade is that it prevents governments from restricting what types of products may be imported and exported across its borders:

 “According to Article XI of GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade], any restrictions on imports and exports is illegal, even though restrictions might be necessary for cultural, ecological, and economic reasons” [although there are provisions for select economic-based exceptions].

Shiva uses the industrialization of India’s beef industry as an example to illustrate how multinational corporations (MNCs) can completely subvert a society’s culture, environment and economy and siphon profits away from the Global South and into the Global North.

The main focus of the latter portion of Stolen Harvest is the biotechnology industry. Shiva examines the dangers of genetic engineering and the socioeconimc injustices arising from the patenting of living organisms under the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPPS). Above all, Shiva condemns the environment of impunity in which MNCs are allowed to operate by setting their own standards for the industry:

“In the corporate-controlled food system, the same company may perform the research, sell the seeds, and provide the data about its products. Thus, the patient, diagnostician, and physician are rolled into one, and there is no objective basis of assessment of yield performance or ecological impact.”

Shiva picks apart the four main arguments that the biotechnology uses to defend genetic engineering, and finishes her case with a call to action. She ultimately calls on citizens “to turn the rules of globalization and free trade around, and make trade subservient to the higher values of the protection of the earth and people’s livelihoods.” This, Shiva believes, is the only way to achieve food security, sovereignty and sustainability.

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A few parting words: This is clearly a (very) one-sided analysis of free trade and its impacts on the global food system, which is important to keep in mind. The book provides many more specific case studies and a much more cohesive argument than I have summarised here. I’ve simply commented on a few of Shiva’s key points that really stood out to me. You can find Stolen Harvest online here:


-Brett Crowley