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WTO Think-In

Since Seattle, a new round of WTO farm trade talks has been scheduled. This is both good and bad. The current agriculture rules are so terrible that they must be changed, and they can only be changed via negotiations. On the other hand, proposals being floated by the Clinton Administration for changes in WTO ag rules would make matters even worse for family farmers in the United States and around the world.

A number of key issues, such as export dumping, need to be negotiated immediately. Agribusiness corporations have been shipping grain and other commodities from the United States and Europe at prices that are roughly half of production costs. Although export dumping is illegal under its rules, dumping of agricultural products has been ignored or even encouraged by the WTO. The farm trade talks should result in decisions to either enforce the current rules or end the hypocrisy and abandon them.

Another big issue is consumer labels. Under current WTO rules, no country has the right to regulate trade in food products in terms of the standards, criteria, or methods under which they were grown or certified. Obviously, organic agriculture is distinguished by these factors. It is important that the WTO change this rule.

The biggest current issue is genetically engineered (GE) foods. In Montreal, we won a major victory in drafting the biosafety protocol to the Rio Convention on Biodiversity. But the United States would like the WTO to say to Europe that their current tight restrictions and bans on GE products are illegal under the WTO and must be immediately eliminated. The US is not willing, at the moment, to risk blowing apart the WTO by pursuing this issue through the dispute-process channels. It knows European consumer sentiment is so strong that consumers would never accept GE products.

Many critics of the Seattle protests claim there is no alternative to industrial ag and WTO-regulated trade. Yet millions of farmers all over the planet are moving away from the current global monopoly system, toward alternative, ethical trading schemes. A sizable, global "fair" trade movement is challenging the idea that competing with the general global commodity market is impossible.

This may be the greatest long-term impact of Seattle establishing that globalization can be successfully challenged. For a long time agribusiness argued that the industrial model was better for the environment. It didn't take much to disprove this. Then they said that while their approach may not be ecologically better, it was necessary in order to feed the world. It didn't take long to disprove this as well. For the past few years, their main arguments have been simply "inevitability" that there is no alternative to globalization and homogenization. Seattle has broken the dam of inevitability. Many of my colleagues around the world don't want to see any more discussion of ag and food issues inside the WTO. The key question now: are the farm and consumer groups ready for what comes next? We will see.