Many farmers may be content to let Doha Round negotiators continue to engage in an endless war of words that do not seem to be moving them any closer to a new World Trade Organization agreement.
But the rest of the world — Third World farmers, consumers, non-governmental organizations and the like — are losing patience with the lack of progress in the now six-year-old Doha negotiations, James B. Bolger, the former prime minister of New Zealand, said.
Bolger, the leadoff speaker at the World Agricultural Forum's World Congress in St. Louis May 8-10, concedes concluding the Doha Round and achieving meaningful trade reform will not be easy. The Round has been stalled since the talks collapsed in Geneva in July 2006.
“This Congress must send a message to the WTO negotiators in Geneva that the world's patience is running out,” he said. “Those on the outside looking in want the door to fair trade opened now.”
Bolger, the chairman of the WAF's International Advisory Board, said farm organizations and other interest groups are wary of losing “protection and privilege. But lobby groups never pretend to have the interests of the world at heart, just the interests of their few,” he said.
“Political leaders with global responsibilities, however, must hear and walk to the beat of a different drum,” said Bolger. “We recall when President Reagan stood beside the Berlin Wall and proclaimed, ‘Tear down this wall,’ and what we need today are leaders who will stand beside their own walls and provide improved access for producers from all countries.”
Bolger's rhetoric notwithstanding, many speakers at the three-day World Congress were not optimistic about the chances for a successful conclusion to the Doha Round. Attendees from at least 32 countries seemed to be focusing on the complexity of the issues that must be resolved.
Mariann Fischer Boel, commissioner for agricultural and rural development for the European Union and a keynote speaker, defended the EU's insistence it be allowed to retain exceptions and special safeguards to the tariff reductions being sought by the United States and the G-20 group of nations.
“These are more than economic issues,” said Boel. “Surely no one expects us to import towels that are manufactured where children have been walking in chemicals.
“Right now, the going is tense (in the negotiations), but we still have the process in front of us. Politically, we have to show that we are not quitters. We have to stick with it until we get results.”
Countries like Brazil, the leader of the so-called Group of 20 developing countries that have come to play a pivotal role in the Doha negotiations, have begun to lower their expectations of what is possible from the Round.
“Too many negotiators are not there to think about what's best for the world,” said Marcos Jank, president of the Brazilian Institute for International Trade Negotiations, an organization that provides analysis of WTO developments for the Brazilian government. “They are looking in the mirror, not ahead.”
Jank gave two assessments of the possible outcome of the WTO negotiations — one the Brazilians would like to see happen and one Jank thinks is more likely to occur. The second was noticeably shorter than the first.
After years of being virtually neglected by world leaders, agriculture may be poised to move back to center stage, says Bolger, who is a farmer in addition to having served three terms as New Zealand's prime minister.
“In recent decades, the seductive allure of the wonders of science, the communication revolution, the excitement of money markets, concern about the diminishing supply of fossil fuels and numerous other issues have distracted the minds of many from the centrality of land, water and agriculture,” he noted.
“No longer. Agriculture and the wise stewardship of land and water have moved to the forefront of attention in the international community because you can't debate the world's No. 1 issue, global warming and climate change, without acknowledging the central role of agriculture. In biblical terms, agriculture is the stone that was rejected by the builders and has now become the cornerstone of the building.”
Bolger says the revolution in agriculture today is more challenging than the Green Revolution of the 1960s in which such scientists as Nobel-laureate Norman Borlaug developed new varieties that helped feed a growing world population.
“We not only have to grow more food but must also have concern for the greenhouse gas, methane, that emerges from rotting vegetation in the vast rice paddies of the world,” he said.
“Likewise, livestock grazing on valleys and hills look attractive but methane emissions from those livestock is another source of greenhouse gases.”
New Zealand scientists are looking for ways to reduce that source of methane emissions because it is a source of much of New Zealand's and other countries greenhouse gases, he said.
“Let me observe the world is still at an early stage of developing even the conceptual framework that will bring all the elements of managing the competing demands on agriculture into sustainable policy. Inevitably, that policy will rely on science to make the necessary breakthroughs in a range of areas.”
Sounding a theme that U.S. farm organizations have been using, Bolger said farmers must have access to markets if they are to succeed.
Market access has been one of the main sticking points of the Doha Round as the European Union, India and other countries have refused to make serious reductions in tariffs or non-tariff barriers.
“While at first they may supply only local or domestic markets, they of necessity need to have fair access to the global market place,” he said. “This was understood over 60 years ago when after World War II various international institutions were set up to enable the world to move forward on a more equitable basis.
“Unfortunately, world trade in food is still the most distorted and unreformed of any market,” he added.
“The Doha Round of World trade talks on improving global access for agriculture is still stuck in old arguments on who should move first and by how much. It is not the poor and impoverished who are holding back. No, it is the big, powerful and rich nations that want to retain their subsidies and barriers.”