You might be surprised to learn that while we’re all sheltering in place and wondering what comes next, trade negotiations that could set labor, environmental, and climate rules for decades to come are moving forward. The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has announced plans to negotiate a free-trade agreement with Kenya. This would be the first free-trade agreement the U.S. has negotiated with an African nation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked some important new conversations about how to ensure access to food, some more sincere than others. In the U.S., meatpacking companies assert that they are essential industries and must be allowed to operate despite coronavirus outbreaks among their workers, neatly omitting the fact that they have millions of pounds of meat in cold storage. Breakdowns in supply chains all over the world have exposed the fragility of systems dominated by just a few major corporations. While solutions must involve strengthening and diversifying local food production, trade in agricultural products – especially countries like Kenya that still depend on food imports – will remain an important part of the equation.
Getting trade rules right matters. But trade agreements govern much more than exchanges of food or other products. The rules set in recent deals like the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) limit governments’ abilities to regulate risky pesticides or agricultural technologies or to shelter local production from volatile prices or supplies. After intense pressure from civil society and the U.S. Congress, the final USMCA left out unfair new patent protections on innovative biologic medicines, but there is every reason to believe those proposals will reemerge in other trade talks, potentially including this agreement with Kenya.
Kenya already has access to most U.S. markets under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). We could certainly argue about the harsh economic conditions for participation in that agreement, but it does provide unilateral access to U.S. markets for many African exports. Given the economic disparities between the U.S. and Kenya, it seems extremely risky to insist on opening Kenya’s market indiscriminately to U.S. goods. But that is exactly what various U.S. companies are demanding in their comments on negotiating objectives for this deal.
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