2003: No single issue in preparations for the
upcoming WTO meeting in Cancun has generated more heated
debate than agriculture. Some farm groups are calling
for agricultural trade policy to be removed completely
from the WTO. Others are demanding that new trade rules
stabilize world prices of major commodities at levels
that can sustain family farm operations and enable nations
heavily dependent on food imports to guarantee their
own food security.
What most developing nations and many farmer groups
around the world agree upon is that the status quo is
impoverishing most of the world by driving farmers off
the land, while bringing benefits to very few. Attempts
to change these policies have been blocked by the undemocratic
decision making process of the WTO, which effectively
allows the U.S. and Europe to veto proposals for reform.
In the run-up to Cancun there have been a number of
differing proposals. Responding to rising pressure,
the U.S. and the EU in early August offered some minor
changes in WTO agricultural trade rules that essentially
endorsed the status quo.
Another group, led by Australia and including New Zealand,
Argentina, Canada, and Thailand and Hungary has demanded
total deregulation of agricultural trade. For over a
decade, they have been arguing that no country should
be able to restrict imports of any agricultural products
and no country should have the right to support their
farmers through minimum price or income supplementing
But most members of the WTO and many civil society
organizations have rejected both proposals. Instead,
these groups have called for democratization of the
WTO and particularly of agricultural trade policy making.
For example, the new agriculture proposal by the U.S.
and EU basically ignores three years of negotiations
on new agricultural trade rules that included input
from all 146-member countries. In response, Mexico joined
Brazil, China and India (along with a dozen other countries)
to challenge the U.S.-EU proposal with a negotiating
text that better represents the interests of all WTO
Poor nations seek new rules
More than a dozen poor countries, particularly in
Africa, that are heavily dependent on the exporting
of one or two dominant commodity crops (like cotton
or rice), are demanding new rules that require world
prices for major commodities to at least cover the cost
of production. And countries that are heavily dependent
on food imports, such as Kenya, Nigeria, and the Dominican
Republic, are proposing new WTO agriculture trade rules
to enhance food security through food sovereignty including
rules to prevent the monopoly ownership of the genetic
resources (plants, animals, germplasm) needed to farm.
Unfortunately, the chairman of the WTO agricultural
negotiations group has chosen to ignore the vast majority
of the member countries and has put forward a draft
final declaration that largely mimics the US/EU proposal.
It incorporated virtually none of the suggestions of
the developing countries and specifically rejects any
controls or reductions on export dumping.
Grassroots and civil society groups such as the Institute
for Agriculture and Trade Policy where I work have joined
the developing countries in calling for a rejection
of this draft proposal. With others we are calling on
the WTO member nations to adopt new trade rules that
would help stabilize sustainable world prices for the
major commodities. WTO rules should enable nations heavily
dependent on food imports to use trade rules to set
the level of food security and sovereignty they feel
comfortable with by encouraging local food producers.
What would this look like? The following are a few
concrete proposals that already have broad support from
many developing nation governments, producer groups
and civil society organizations in the North and South.
Four concerns and proposals for equity
The first is the immediate
end to export dumping – the selling
of goods into the global market at prices below the
cost of production. It has been wel-documented that
the U.S. and the EU are dumping onto international markets
on a wide scale. Fortunately, WTO rules prohibit dumping.
Now these rules must be aggressively enforced. If they
were, it would go a long way toward bringing balance
to agriculture trade.
Second, there is broad
support for the general concepts of Fair Trade
– the independent (non-governmental) system of
agreements between producers and buyers that ensure
that the prices paid to farmers and charged to the final
consumers are fair and reflect the full costs of production
including costs of environmental protection. Some recent
proposals for changes in WTO rules, like limits on the
flexibility of government procurement rules and product
labeling, threaten the Fair Trade system and must therefore
Third, additional international
agreements must be designed to specifically balance
supply and demand for basic agricultural commodities.
There is a newly energized debate over how to adjust
WTO rules to enable the effective operation of global
commodity agreements in the major agricultural crop
areas. Record low prices in coffee,
cotton, rice, and other commodities has sparked a renewed
interest in and debate over the best way to structure
the balance of supply and demand at the global level
in order to achieve relatively stable and fair commodity
Fourth, there is near
universal rejection of WTO proposals that would increase
monopoly control over seeds, animals, germplasm, and
other vital inputs needed by farmers
– including strong oppositions to "patenting
of life" requirement proposals being made by the
U.S. government and the European Commission.
These four major concerns – ending dumping, defending
Fair Trade, global balancing of supply with demand,
and stopping the WTO from further enabling monopoly-control
over necessary agricultural inputs—should form
the basis of a forward-looking agriculture agreement
– and they should be the basis on which the world
should evaluate the success or failure of the Cancun
Mark Ritchie is the President of the Institute
for Agriculture and Trade Policy, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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