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Farm Trade Policy Will Take Center Stage at Sept. WTO Talks in Mexico - 2003-08-20

When the WTO's 146 member countries meet in September in Cancun, Mexico, discussions on how to re-structure world farm trade will take center stage. Various groups - humanitarian, religious, and non-profit - that work in developing countries want these talks to foster more trade and thus improve the lives of millions of the world's poor.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops raised the issue in a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick. "The majority of the people in developing countries," they say, "depend upon farming and rural economic activities for their livelihood. Addressing their needs is critical to the social, political and economic health of their countries. We support the effort to develop a more open global trading system."

Walter Grazer is director of the Environmental Justice Program at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He says the WTO can provide real opportunities for the developing world and not just enrich the global elite: “But certainly trade - we're looking at this as one of the engines to help end hunger. I think trade is getting, no pun intended, quite a bit of currency these days. There's quite a bit of focus on it and could make a significant impact in helping to reduce hunger and poverty and so forth around the world.”

Farm trade in particular is of crucial interest to many in the developing world. Ann Tutwiler, president of the International Food and Agricultural Trade Policy Council, says the reason is past talks have not done enough to stimulate that trade: “This time developing countries are playing a much bigger role. They've been much more active. There are many, many proposals that have come forward from developing countries, and they have made it clear that without substantial progress in agriculture there is not going to be substantial progress in other areas that the U.S. and Europe want from the developing countries.”

Eager to see trade talks move forward, the United States and the European Union have put together a framework agreement on agricultural issues. It makes recommendations on how industrialized countries can open their markets and reduce farm supports and export subsidies.

Third-world farmers complain that these various protectionist devices allow rich countries' farmers to sell their produce at below cost on the world market, while preventing their own sales to Western markets.

U.S. Trade Representative spokesperson Richard Mills says the agreement to end trade-distorting subsidies and tariffs is a step forward: “For the last year, we've been consistently pushing a very bold and ambitious proposal to reach substantial and significant agricultural trade reform, in terms of reducing domestic supports, including our own, reducing tariffs around the world, and trying to phase out export subsidies, which are the very worst of the type of support that affects agricultural trade.”

Though Richard Mills calls the framework a breakthrough, he cautions against expecting much progress in Cancun: “It's also very important to recognize that the Cancun meeting is really just a mid-point in the overall trade round. And so there aren't anticipated to be any final decisions or any final numbers developed in Cancun. What we're trying to do is provide the framework so that you can have a meaningful negotiation progress, where people are talking about the same concepts and the same ideas, and then it becomes a negotiation over numbers, ambition, speed of measures, and things such as that.”

Mr. Mills says there are still many unanswered questions to be addressed by all WTO members: “Now, we don't pretend that it answers every question. And we probably would have written things differently ourselves, as would many other members. But the point is that this is a shared paper from the United States and the European Union, and we believe it provides a good foundation to move forward. This is not just an exercise in discussing what the U.S. and the EU can do to reform agricultural trade. It's a discussion for the WTO. Everyone needs to come together and provide some movement and reform.”

Although American farmers stand to see major cuts in their domestic farm supports under the agreed framework, Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, says the paper is a good start. He is especially pleased that the United States and Europe sought to distinguish the poor, less-developed countries from nations in the developing world with robust farming sectors.

“Developing countries run the gamut from the dirt poor to countries like Brazil,” says Mr. Stallman. “ Brazil is a net food exporter, very competitive, very modern. And so it's a little difficult for U.S. farmers to sit back and think that these agricultural powerhouses who are self-designating as a developing country should get special treatment. That's the distinction I think that's made in the text that there would have to be rules considered for those types of countries.”

Based on his experience with past trade negotiations, Mr. Stallman says he isn't sure the developing world will be willing to make concessions to the industrialized sector: “The overriding attitude that we experienced in our discussions in Geneva with the different delegations from developing countries was ‘we want to benefit from this round, but with respect to agriculture we really don't want to have to do anything.’ That's a generalization but that was their line. And once again, that's why this negotiation cannot take just one sector. It has to be a comprehensive agreement - a single undertaking. And that will be a tradeoff a lot of those developing countries are going to have to look at very carefully.”

At the end of the day, compromise will be key. Observers say the complaints of both the world's richest nations and its poorest are valid. And like it or not, globalization and trade are here to stay. Walter Grazer of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says the challenge is to make sure the benefits reach everyone.

“Being for or against it seems to be somewhat irrelevant." he says. "It just is a reality. And so the question for us from a moral point of view is: how do we make globalization work for the entire human family? How do you create a space at the table for everybody so that no one is left out? And so the question then for questions of trade and finance and so forth is: how do we structure that? How do we make the rules and agree upon those where this really can work for the benefit of most people and doesn't just work to the benefit of a few? And I think that's the challenge that's before us.”

The answer to these questions is not likely to be found next month in Cancun. However, Mr. Grazer, like many others says that just because the problem is complex, people shouldn't stop trying to solve it. A solution could bring an end to hunger and lift millions of poor people out of poverty.