Fate of the Farmers in Balance

This December, the WTO is scheduled to convene in Hong Kong, in what could be its final opportunity to adopt the Doha reforms. The negotiators aim to open markets worldwide by cutting the subsidies and tariffs that heavily favor producers in Europe and the United States, but disagreements have repeatedly obstructed their goals. For the average news viewer, the familiar media coverage of loud protests and subdued meetings does little to clarify the issues in contention. In this article, trade expert Edward Gresser explains how agricultural subsidies have stalled negotiations – and why it’s important to eliminate them. Gresser shows how freely traded crops like Ethiopian noug have allowed impoverished farmers to make a welcome profit, while high subsidies on crops like olive oil prevent equally poor farmers from selling their goods on the world market. As he observes, “Small dairy farmers in Uganda and olive orchard workers in Morocco and Lebanon are surely as deserving as the semiconductor businesses, furniture assemblers and airplane designers who have benefited so much from the work of the Hong Kong Ministers’ predecessors.” Isn’t it time that we extended those benefits to the millions of people who live on the land? – YaleGlobal

Fate of the Farmers in Balance

The next round of trade talks must remove subsidies that are crushing poor farmers
Edward Gresser
Tuesday, November 1, 2005
Cornered cow: Thanks to western subsidies, cattle products from countries like Uganda are kept out of the world market

WASHINGTON: The Trade Ministers of the 148 members of the WTO are a diverse group. Their December meeting in Hong Kong will place America’s Congressional veteran Rob Portman next to Princess Lubna of the United Arab Emirates. The erudite Mari Pangestu, an Indonesian development economist turned Cabinet Minister, is side by side with Ireland’s ex-Mayor of Cork Micheal Martin; Cambodia is next to Canada and the EU next to Fiji. But as diverse as they may be, the Ministers have a common mission. Their predecessors in the 1990s eliminated tariffs on semiconductor chips, furniture and airplanes; this group is charged with concluding an agricultural trade reform plan, designed to open markets overall for farmers and in particular to cut the subsidies, tariffs and quotas of the WTO’s wealthy members.

Such meetings often bring more heat than light to trade policy. From outside the halls we get video footage of colorful demonstrations. From inside, meanwhile, comes a steady buzz of impenetrable jargon, as the Ministers debate blue and amber boxes, mode of transmission, Swiss tariff formulae and the like. Onlookers have trouble understanding any of it. But as demonstrators chant and negotiators drone, keep two products in mind to illustrate what the world could be, and what it is.

The first is an obscure product called noug. Grown in the Ethiopian highlands as a staple crop for centuries, noug has only recently been traded on world markets. It is a small black seed, used by Ethiopian farm families to yield the oil that fries their traditional spongy injera bread. Noug is also, however, the world’s most expensive and glamorous birdseed. Its high oil content makes it irresistible to the small, energetic songbirds American birdwatchers love, as well as indispensable to Ethiopian frying pans. Five years ago Ethiopians – amazed to find foreigners willing to buy the stuff simply to throw it away to birds – began selling. As noug grows nowhere outside Ethiopia and South Asia, it faces no tariff or subsidy. A hundred tons a day now flows easily from the dock at Djibouti to the ports of Baltimore and New York, and thence to American pet stores and backyard bird feeders. The product now accounts for a third of Ethiopian exports to the United States and brings in some unexpected cash to the upland farmers.

Olive oil is more typical. There is much to like about the beloved product of Greek islands and Italian country towns: the mild taste, the translucent green and gold colors, the hope that it may cut the risk of heart attack. Even the growers seem a likeable bunch, judging by their amusing quality-grade system. (Oil from olives pressed once is ‘extra virgin,’ or top quality. If the olives have been pressed two or three times it is still ‘virgin;’ even if they have been pressed repeatedly, the oil is still gently labeled ‘pure.’) The olive tree grows all around the Mediterranean, and should bring income and rural employment to Morocco, Tunisia and Lebanon – but it doesn’t. Each year the European Union spends $2.5 billion or so to supplement the incomes of growers in Spain, Italy and Greece. The subsidy, at more than two dollars for every dollar of global olive oil trade, keeps Moroccan and Lebanese oil out of American supermarkets, even as tariffs and quotas limit oil sales to Europe.

This is the usual story. Dairy farmers and sugar-beet growers in both Europe and the U.S. get subsidies far larger than olive growers. Even cucumber-growers get over $500 million a year. Altogether, the world conducts a bit less than $600 billion in agricultural trade, which the rich countries warp to their advantage through $300 billion in subsidies, quotas and tariffs. President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, speaking to the World Food Summit in 2002, observed that his country – with its mountains terrain, mild summers and temperate winters – could send cheese and butter around the world. But $11 billion in American, European, Swiss and Norwegian dairy subsidies, a sum greater than the entire Ugandan national economy, stands in the way. Museveni’s judgment is dispassionate but bitter:

“By blocking value-added products, our partners in the world kill the following opportunities: ability to earn more foreign currency, employment, enhancing the purchasing power of the population, expanding the tax base for the governments of Africa and the chance to transform African societies from the backward, pre-industrial states – in which they are now – to modern ones by building a middle class and a skilled working class.”

While his logic is hard to refute, few governments want to reform first. The Hong Kong meeting’s hope is to create a plan that lets all do so simultaneously, with rich countries sharply cutting subsidy programs, relaxing quotas that limit imports, and bringing all but a few tariffs down from rates often above 100%. The result would be fundamental change that would touch virtually all of the 3 billion people still living on the land.

The Hong Kong meeting is not a normal one. It is close to the last chance for success in a negotiating round that has already missed its deadline, and failure would mean deferring real hopes of reform far into the future. First, by 2007, the American farm programs will come up for renewal. In the absence of a WTO agreement before then, they will probably be extended for five years. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration’s trade negotiating authority will run out in mid-2007. If Congress is to vote on it before time runs out, the entire Doha Round – including complex talks on services and manufacturing trade - needs to be completed in 2006. With farm trade at Doha’s political heart, other issues will not advance until the agricultural talks yield a result all can accept.

That makes the Hong Kong meeting the critical point. It is a great challenge to the WTO governments and their Ministers. Rural life carries a powerful emotional charge almost everywhere, and traditions of protecting agriculture are strong. In America, Senator Henry Clay was already blasting away at low-cost competition for Louisiana’s sugar plantations from Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica in 1832 – just twenty years after Louisiana became a state. European and Japanese governments face opposition from still more protected lobbies.

But experience seems to show that the cost of reform is not unbearably high. Farmers in Australia and New Zealand, where subsidies vanished in the 1980s and 1990s, manage quite well without subsidy programs. Little New Zealand, for example, managed to export 360,000 tons of butter in 2003 without subsidies, while subsidized American dairy farms managed only 6,000 tons. In the United States too, 70% of American farm production, from fruit and wine to beef, poultry, vegetables and nuts, succeeds without subsidies.

And the obvious interest of the world as a whole is in a more open system. Small dairy farmers in Uganda and olive orchard workers in Morocco and Lebanon are surely as deserving as the semiconductor businesses, furniture assemblers and airplane designers who have benefited so much from the work of the Hong Kong Ministers’ predecessors. A simple decision to treat more products like noug, and fewer like olive oil, would cost little and do a lot of good.

Edward Gresser is Director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Project on Trade and Global Markets.

© 2005 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization