1, 2003: When Canada's Chief Agricultural Trade Negotiator
comes to Guelph to speak to farm leaders, one expects to hear
an upbeat message about the positive goals of the 146-nation,
Doha round of trade negotiations. From some perspectives more
trade is, by definition, good economics. After Afghanistan
and Iraq, the world economy needs a lift. Tearing down agricultural
trade barriers by the end of 2004 would be just the right
Canada's agricultural goals for the Doha Round are well known:
real cuts in domestic farm subsidies by those rich treasuries
in the United States and the European Union, an end to export
subsidies, and better access to mutual markets shaped by flexibility
to guarantee survival of our approach to dairy and poultry
But Steve Verheul's intent at the July annual meeting of
the George Morris Centre was to tone down expectations for
the negotiations. Countries are not shifting from their initial
positions. A draft report written by Stuart Harbison, chair
of the World Trade Organization General Council, was roundly
condemned by all. The talks have missed a series of deadlines.
The European Union is changing, not cutting, its approach
to domestic subsidies. The United States continues to defend
its export subsidy, disguised as a food aid program. Talks
between the European Union and the United States raise the
specter of a pact between the two powerhouses presented as
a "take it or leave it deal" to the rest of the
So, a new trade agreement may take a little longer. Fine.
I do not share the perspective that more trade is, by definition,
good economics -- particularly trade in agricultural products.
First, more trade means a still longer food chain. Typical
products on grocery store shelves are already well traveled
-- 2500 kilometres on average by some estimates. We are, in
essence, building a food system heavily dependent on fuel
consumption. As access to fossil fuel supplies becomes more
competitive, that reliance poses a great long-term risk.
Second, more trade means more risk of deflation in the farm
and food economy. For decades, technological innovation, productivity,
the ingenuity of farmers and externalized costs have created
a gentle deflation in farm and food prices in North America.
More agricultural trade will force our food system into just-in-time
inventory, offshore outsourcing and a still greater push to
replace people work with technology work.
Third, trade in farm and food products is not like buying
and selling widgets. It is far more demanding and unstable.
Safety, quality and methods of production all bring unique
challenges when food moves across boundaries. Canada's first
mad cow has already closed borders for two months.
Trade in food needs its own unique approach.
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