At the end of July the WTO suspended the Doha Round negotiations, which had been striving to further liberalize international trade since 2001. Labeled ‘the worst diplomatic catastrophe of recent years ‘ the failure was mainly due to an inability to come to agreement on agriculture.
The age-old problem of subsidies to farmers in developed countries and of import duties which lead to dumping in the poorest countries, could not be solved and caused the talks to collapse. The G20, led by emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil, together with other poorer countries, had asked for tariffs to be halved and subsidies in Europe and the US to be reduced by a third.
While the EU had put forward a proposal that approached what was being demanded, despite the opposition of some member countries such as France, the US uncompromisingly refused to move on its Farm Bill which pays out 75 billion dollars to American farmers every year.
The impasse lasted the whole of July, and eventually the Director of the WTO, Pascal Lamy, had to recognize that there was no longer any room for negotiation.
This is a historic failure. First, it shows that the WTO is not up to managing the trade problems that arise in a globalized world, and secondly it shows that agriculture remains a central issue on the world political agenda, with the hope that from now on it will be addressed according to different criteria.
For too many years agricultural hyper-productivity gave the developed world the feeling that agriculture and food were no longer a problem, but it was from the agricultural sector-and not only in poorer countries-that the first protests were raised in Seattle in 1999, in reaction to a system that was not only extremely unfair but also unsustainable for the planetary environment.
I think that the conflict evident in the WTO-where it would appear that the question boils down to one of the rich against the poor-mainly became deadlocked due to an underlying basic problem in the way the issue is approached. It is profoundly mistaken to imagine that the problems of agriculture can be equated to those of the manufacturing sector and just treated from an economic perspective.
In fact the agricultural sectors in both developed and in developing countries are more similar than might appear: farmers throughout the world are close to each other. I have had a clear demonstration of this during my involvement with Terra Madre, an event which is being repeated in October.
The level of discussion and the issues considered are very different to those at the WTO, because the people doing the talking are people who actually work the land: they have first-hand experience of the problems and do not use agriculture just as a means of exchange which is regarded as having marginal importance.
This time the WTO has hit the wall: in my opinion agriculture is a strategic sector that should be excluded from these types of negotiation. It should be reconsidered and seen as a means of addressing global injustices. It should set up a proper comprehensive system run by a new, balanced supranational organization.
I think that all those who have pointed out the problems we are facing could make good contributions to the debate and help identify strategies we should follow. The failure of the WTO also means that those who have always maintained that it is possible to create another world, starting with agriculture and food, should be listened to by those in positions of power.
We must begin thinking about alternative models of development to those promoted by the World Bank. All it could say about this failure was that it will mean forfeiting 287 billion dollars in global gross product.
Figures such as these are used as indicators of growth, but are meaningless if we consider that food production is the primary cause (according to the UN and FAO) of planetary destruction of resources.
No-one is thinking of abandoning the ‘modern ‘ hyper-productive methods which cause this, nor of making them more sustainable. They are senseless given that we are facing the most serious water shortages in the history of the world; a massive abandonment of rural areas in less-developed countries (with consequent social problems in cities); poverty, pollution and a situation where small farmers in developed countries are also beginning to struggle to survive in the face of the system of subsidies.
This historic failure of the WTO is no longer even an alarm signal: it is a demonstration that we are already facing a significant agricultural crisis. The political and economic instruments available on a worldwide scale need radically changing.
First printed in La Stampa on July 30 2006
Adapted by Ronnie Richards