Posted December 11, 2013 by Shiney Varghese   

Human RightsUnited NationsWater

Used under creative commons license from Loonybread.

On November 21, the U.N. General Assembly’s Third Committee (The Committee) adopted a resolution on “The human right to safe drinking water and sanitation.” All U.N. member states agreed that the rights to water and sanitation are derived from the right to an adequate standard of living. As a result, these rights are now implicitly recognized as being part of International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

This means that for the very first time, all U.N. member States affirm that the rights to water and sanitation are legally binding in international law. This is indeed a moment for all of us to celebrate.

Yet this agreement is marred by the reluctance of the United States to join all other nations in a universal agreement on the definition of these rights (as defined in a resolution of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted by consensus in September 2013).

Writing about this, an Amnesty International press release says: “At the time [of the unanimous adoption of the UNHRC resolution] the United States was the only country that disassociated itself from the definition of these rights and stated that it did not agree ‘with the expansive way this right has been articulated.’ However, it has not explained what aspects of this definition it does not accept.” The press release continues: “Such rights are only ‘expansive’ if one adopts a 19th century understanding of hygiene and of government duties to ensure the provision of public services.”

At the behest of the United States, the main sponsors of the draft resolution—Germany and Spain—tried to reach a consensus by removing the following paragraph, which contained a critical affirmation of the contents of these rights, from the resolution that was unanimously passed at the General Assembly this November.

...the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation entitles everyone, without discrimination, to have access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use and to have physical and affordable access to sanitation, in all spheres of life, that is safe, hygienic, secure, and acceptable and that provides privacy and ensures dignity.

Given that this was the only reference in the draft resolution to the content of the rights to water and sanitation, the final resolution adopted is stripped of essential elements related to these rights. Amnesty International is right that it is “incumbent upon the U.S. government to explain which of these aspects of the rights it cannot accept and why.” The removal of that text from the resolution would seem to indicate that some aspects of our rights to water and sanitation are not guaranteed by the Federal government. Which ones?

Quite apart from the domestic implications, such a position by the U.S. government also works against the interests of the billions of people who lack adequate access to water and sanitation.

The debate isn't over yet. Even though the references to the content of the rights to water and were removed from the November resolution, UNGA’s Third Committee endorsed the UNHRC resolution of September 2013, which elaborates the underlying essential elements of these rights. Thus, reintroducing the content of these rights in future texts on rights to water and sanitation should be quite straightforward.

The issue will likely come up again at the U.N. General Assembly (GA) next year. For the supporters of the draft resolution this offers an opportunity to reintroduce the removed language. For the United States, it will provide a chance to stand on the right side of history, rather than holding back progress.

If and when a U.N. GA resolution is adopted with these amendments, it will indeed be a big step forward in advancing rights-based approaches to development. Yet, we need to be mindful that this will only be a baby step toward ensuring adequate access to water and sanitation for world’s poor. It will require sustained work at multiple levels and spaces, including rethinking our water-intensive development trajectory, to make it a reality for all.

Posted December 10, 2013 by Dale Wiehoff   

GMO

Tell the Brazilian embassy in Washington, DC to Stop Terminator Seeds

Call: +1 (202) 238-2700

After years of global opposition and prohibitions against the production and distribution of terminator seeds, the biotech industry’s final solution (seeds that are genetically engineered to not reproduce), the Brazilian government has taken steps to legalize them before the end of the year.

According the ETC Group, an international bio- and agrotechnology watchdog organization, the Brazilian Judicial Commission will entertain a motion on Wednesday, December 11, 2013 to accept Terminator seeds, making Brazil the first country in the world to defy a 13-year-old UN moratorium on the use of the technology.

Terminator technology represents a fundamental threat to the rights of farmers and biodiversity and must be permanently banned.

We urge you to call the Brazilian embassy in your country and send the government a message that the world rejects technology that makes plants produce sterile seeds.

In the U.S., call the Brazilian embassy in Washington, DC: +1 (202) 238-2700.

Learn more from the ETC Group.

Posted December 9, 2013 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell   

Natural resourcesAgroecologyEnvironmentSustainable Agriculture

Dr. Catherine Woteki, Chief Scientist of the USDA and Under-Secretary for REE.

The comment period recently closed on the USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Action Plan Draft, which responded to informal and formal consultations with internal and external advisors and stakeholders, and “lessons learned from implementation of Farm Bill provisions.” It refines the initial REE Action Plan, which was released in February of 2012.

Why should we care? Well, the action plan is meant to identify and outline the core organizing efforts of the USDA’s science agenda, including how the USDA delivers on its the scientific discovery mission through The Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Agricultural Statistics Service. In other words, it is setting the priorities for the work of 1,200 research projects and thousands of staff within the USDA, the priorities for over $1.2 million in projects and research funds distributed to Land-Grant universities and other partners, and the priorities around what kinds of data the USDA works to collect and how it disseminates it. This document will strongly influence what kind of science is supported, what kinds of things we can find out about our own food system and what possibilities and alternatives are explored. As a former academic, I can say the USDA is a very important funder for academic work on the food system and their statistics are vital to allowing us to figure out what’s going on in our own food system.

So I was displeased to read the 45-page draft document and see no mention of agroecology. Agroecology, which most fundamentally is about dealing with agriculture as a system that is inescapably both ecological and social, would seem almost wholly congruent with the USDA REE Action Plan’s stated goals. This is why I was happy to see the Ecological Society of America address this in a letter to Dr. Catherine Woteki, Chief Scientist of the USDA and Under-Secretary for REE (I contributed to the letter as the chair of the Agroecology Section of the Society):

The Ecological Society of America is grateful for the opportunity to submit comments on the USDA’s draft revised Research, Education, and Economics (REE) Mission Area Action Plan […] We are glad to see the priorities placed on studying  natural  resources,  sustainable  agricultural  systems,  and  the  environment  more  broadly. ESA shares these priorities […] [but] the current REE Mission Area Action Plan  draft  document  includes  only  two  mentions  of  ecology  (both  in  reference  specifically  to microbial  ecology) […] Yet the field of agroecology would appear logically foundational to achieving practically all  of  the  primary  goals  and  subgoals  laid  out  in  the  Draft  document,  which  emphasizes  “a comprehensive  approach  to  agriculture  and  working  lands,”  and  in  taking  “an  assertive  and progressive  approach  to  transforming  USDA  REE  into  a  high-profile  research  organization.”

ESA goes on to propose three changes: “(1) The incorporation of ecology into the REE plan […] (2)  A dedicated budget line within USDA REE for agroecological research […] (3) An annual high-level Conference on Agroecology, under the auspices of the USDA.” The letter also highlights several examples of exciting, cutting-edge and very timely work currently being undertaken by agroecologists.

For a primer on agroecology, you can also see IATP’s recent report, Scaling Up Agroecology.

Read the letter from the Ecological Society of America to Dr. Catherine Woteki, Chief Scientist of the USDA and Under-Secretary for Research, Education and Economics.

Read the USDA Draft Action Plan (2013 revision).

See the letter’s appendix, which shows that over the past 20 years, agroecology has had the highest percentage of well-cited peer-reviewed papers (7 percent) when compared to organic agriculture (5.1 percent), agronomy (4.5 percent), and soil science (4.8 percent).

Posted December 6, 2013 by Shefali Sharma   

TradeWTOMarketsClimate ChangeFood securityWorld Trade Organization (WTO)

Used under creative commons license from World Trade Organization.

IATP's Shefali Sharma is reporting from the 9th WTO Ministerial in Bali, Indonesia.

2 p.m., Bali, Indonesia

It is supposed to be the final hours of the 9th WTO Ministerial here in Bali but trade negotiators are milling in the hallways, conjecturing whether the meeting will be extended until tomorrow or wrap up by 5:00 p.m., whether there will be a “take it or leave it text” or further negotiations late into the night. There have been several contentious issues, including whether to finalize yet another trade agreement on trade facilitation and a non-committal package for the Least Developed Countries (LDC). However, the issue most critical to poor countries concerns food security. The current WTO framework on agriculture is being tested on its ability to accommodate government procurement for food security programs in developing countries.

India has been in the spotlight the last three days since the meeting began because it has stood firmly against the U.S. opposition to allow such programs from violating existing WTO rules. The existing rules were unfairly crafted in the mid-80s by the U.S. and the EU, but never mind that. The U.S. is insisting that India’s Food Security Act would exceed limits set in the agriculture agreement for “trade distorting” subsidies. Never mind too that the U.S. has negotiated space at the WTO to reconfigure its own domestic agriculture and food security programs.

Last night, the Indian Trade Minister Anand Sharma was holed up for hours with the Director General (DG) of the WTO Roberto Azevedo, the Indonesian Trade Minister Gita Wirjawan and USTR Michael Froman. The minister was asked several times to compromise on language on the public food stockholdings. Each time, it is rumored, Minister Sharma came back with a firm “no” because each proposal set onerous and unfair restrictions towards a permanent solution which India seeks. The “no” came from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who has unanimous backing from his cabinet that India’s Food Security Act cannot be compromised. The last meeting between the DG and Ambassador Froman terminated at 5am this morning. The USTR has also refused to budge on this issue, essentially demanding that nothing should limit exports (hence profits) of U.S. agribusiness.

This morning has been a flurry of rumors about what will happen. Indonesia’s young trade minister is a possible presidential candidate and is eager to have a “package” at Bali; the irony is that Indonesia has abandoned its own proposal while its own Bulog program for rice procurement could in principle stand to be challenged under existing WTO rules if it was proven that Indonesia has not used “market prices” for its support. Indonesia chairs the G-33 which has tabled the proposal on exemptions from challenges to public food stockholding programs in developing countries. In Bali, Indonesia has done little to further the cause. The fact is that several developing countries around the world use food procurement programs for addressing hunger in their countries. Many, like Brazil, have simply manipulated the notifications of these programs to the WTO afraid of being challenged. Other countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia that could benefit from such programs in the future could be restricted from enacting such programs unless the WTO and the governments negotiating here wake up to the fact that trade is a small component of food security. Global trade turned out to be a highly unreliable way to ensure food security in 2007-08 when food grain prices sky-rocketed and food riots broke out in over 30 countries.  

Contrary to media reports, India has not fought this fight alone behind closed doors. Several countries including Nepal, Egypt, Kenya, Bolivia, Cuba, Venezuela, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa and Namibia (to name a few) have either expressed support or made statements in support of a permanent solution to this problem at the WTO. For instance, one African country said in a closed meeting, “Food security and agriculture linkages need to be underpinned in this agreement. The food security proposals underpin the social and economic fabric of our and other African economies.”

As the crowd thins here for lunch, it is still unclear whether negotiations will continue on into the night/ Several rumors are circulating that a compromise may have been reached: one that allows the U.S. to claim that it placed restrictions on such programs through a “Peace Clause” with certain conditionalities and a time period that would prevent any challenges to such programs; and one that sets up a negotiating track for a permanent solution to allowing such food security programs to continue without challenges at the WTO. There was an earlier rumor that the U.S. would only accept a permanent solution if “no new food security programs” could be enacted that exceed subsidy limits currently prescribed at the WTO. 

If the WTO heeds this conditionality, it will only further reinforce the viewpoint that the WTO is incapable of handling the major challenges of the 21st century—the central ones being food security in the era of climate change and high and volatile food prices.

Stay tuned.

Posted December 6, 2013 by Shefali Sharma   

TradeWTOFood securityWorld Trade Organization (WTO)

Used under creative commons license from World Trade Organization.

Indian Trade Minister Anand Sharma

Update: The ministerial text was accepted on Saturday morning with minor changes to assuage Cuba's concerns. See a video report from Shefali Sharma regarding Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia's move to block consensus on the agreement on the morning of December 7. 

IATP's Shefali Sharma is reporting from the 9th WTO Ministerial in Bali, Indonesia.

3:00 a.m., Bali, Indonesia

The WTO’s “Bali Package” was supposed to have been adopted this early morning of December 7 after trade diplomats rolled in for a final meeting at midnight. Earlier in the evening, at 8:00 p.m. on December 6, the WTO secretariat had shared a set of decisions proposed by the chair that comprise the Bali Package. The meeting was originally scheduled to close by 5:00 p.m.. However, at the time of this writing, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua have said to have blocked consensus and the meeting has been adjourned. Cuba’s major issue has been language in the Trade Facilitation decision on “freedom of transit” that fails to address the problems it faces with the U.S. embargo against Cuba. The meeting has been adjourned to reconvene sometime in the next hours.

A critical piece of the package is the decision on “Public Stockholding for Food Security Purposes.” This decision took up most of the negotiating time for two central parties: India and the United States. The final decision allows developing countries a “Peace Clause” which protects them from being sued at the WTO for implementing food security programs that violate the WTO’s rules to limit spending on “trade distorting” agricultural subsidies. The decision limits the Peace Clause to “traditional staple food crops” defined as “primary agricultural products that are predominant staples in the traditional diet of a developing country member.” It also puts in place a set of criteria for annual notification and transparency about these programs, which will be in addition to existing notification requirements at the WTO. The U.S. insisted that an additional “anti-circumvention” safeguard be put in place to ensure that subsidies that do not fall under the Peace Clause but have been notified as trade distorting are not increased as a result of this exemption. Pakistan got an assurance that such programs will not “distort trade or adversely affect the food security of other Members.”

The decision represents a hard fought victory for India. Before going to Bali, the U.S. government insisted that the food security programs in question would only be sheltered for four years under the Peace Clause. In other words, India spent its entire political capital on getting the Peace Clause for an indefinite period, “until a permanent solution is found” for how to fund public food reserves without running afoul of the WTO. In the last two days of the Ministerial, India was portrayed as the main obstacle to a successful outcome from Bali, which in turn was portrayed as essential to avoid the WTO sinking into irrelevance.

An important question is whether the decision introduces a “standstill” clause for any expansion of these public programs because the decision applies to programs “existing as of the date of this Decision.” If so, this would have an impact on developing countries who currently do not have such programs and for the expansion of India’s program. This is a major concern for India’s Right to Food Campaign which wants the inclusion of other staples such as pulses under the Food Security Act. Asked about this concern and one Indian representative responded, “That’s why this is an interim solution.”

The decision calls for a review at the 10th WTO Ministerial Conference, which will be held two years from now. The decision also lays out a work program for the adoption of a permanent solution in four years time, at the 11th Ministerial. For those of us who have long felt that WTO agriculture rules are biased towards agribusiness, too narrow and imbalanced, and inadequate to address food security and rural livelihood concerns, the work program is an entry point to reinvigorate the debate about the role that trade rules must play in ensuring food security (not impeding it) and the limitations of the existing framework measured against the achievement of that objective.

Posted December 4, 2013 by     Kathleen Schuler

Food and HealthHealthy LegacyAutismEnvironmentHealth

Used under creative commons license from buzzymelibee.

Now that autism affects one in fifty school-aged kids—up from 1 in 150 as measured in 2000—we should be asking ourselves some pretty serious questions about why so many kids have autism. Sure, we know that the health and educational systems are better at diagnosing autism, but better diagnosis explains only part of the increase. With exponential increases in rates of autism over the past two decades, there is more going on than better diagnosis.

As more kids are diagnosed with autism, most of our attention is focused on providing services. Serving kids with autism is essential, but there is also a need to examine the possible myriad of factors that might be contributing to this autism epidemic.  If we knew how to prevent autism, it would be our responsibility as a society to commit resources at our disposal to do so.

Preventing autism requires that we look at the whole picture. The bulk of research in autism has been focused on genetics, which plays a contributing role in risk for autism. Emerging from more recent research, however, is a pattern of links between risk for autism and environmental and dietary factors. While the etiology of autism is complex, with both genetic and environmental components, it is clear that the role of the immune system is key. A child’s prenatal and postnatal environments, including diet, clearly impact immune health. Autism is likely the result of multiple assaults on the immune system. One of these assaults then tips the person over a threshold into the autism state.

IATP's latest fact sheet, Autism: What Do Environment and Diet Have to Do With It? by Kathleen Schuler, MPH, explores countless studies that point to increased risk of autism and autistic behaviors from numerous environmental toxin exposures, including:

  • Pollution. Living near a pollution site, hazardous air pollutants, and residence near a freeway.
  • Pesticides. Residence near agricultural pesticide applications and prenatal exposure to the organophosphate pesticides.
  • Phthalates. Prenatal exposure to phthalates.
  • Heavy metals. Exposure to environmental neurotoxins including mercury, aluminum, lead and cadmium. 
  • Persistent organic pollutants. Prenatal exposure to high levels of PCBs and DDE (metabolite of DDT).
  • Parental occupation. Mother’s occupational exposure to exhaust and combustion products and parental work at night or in handling of solvents.

Environmental toxins like mercury and pesticides cause adverse neurodevelopmental impacts through altering gene expression and interact with dietary factors that can either protect or cause harm to health. Specific nutrients play critical roles in metabolic processes that detoxify and eliminate harmful toxins from the body. For example, deficiencies in zinc and magnesium may interact with toxic metal burdens to increase risk for autism. There is emerging evidence that faulty gene expression may play a role in autism and that environmental and dietary factors are key factors in gene expression.

What about prevention?

We have more to learnabout the factors that contribute to autism but we already know enough to apply public health approaches to prevent and treat autism. Education of women of childbearing age and expecting parents on environmental and dietary factors linked to autism could help reduce exposures that might trigger autism. Behavioral interventions for children with autism could be supplemented with dietary interventions. Numerous studies point to the benefits of nutritional supplements for patients with autism. Prenatal care should include an assessment of nutritional status and a close look at treating and preventing metabolic disorders that increase the risk of autism.

While we know that there’s no one chemical or no one exposure that causes autism, implementing policies that prevent unnecessary exposures to neurotoxins and hormone-disrupting chemicals is a smart public health prevention strategy. One of the first policy steps to reduce exposures to toxic chemicals is to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the outdated and ineffective law that allows thousands of toxic, untested chemicals to continue to be used in consumer products, including in food packaging, without basic information about effects on human health.

In addition to federal action to reduce exposures to toxic chemicals in our environment, state action to protect citizens, especially children, from toxic chemicals in everyday consumer products is also important. Implementing policies such as addressing chemicals in children’s products, as proposed by Minnesota’s Toxic Free Kids Act, will contribute to a healthy environment for the optimal growth and development of our children. To get involved visit Healthy Legacy's Facebook page or contact them at healthylegacy@cleanwater.org.

Read IATP's Autism: What Do Environment and Diet Have to Do With It? by Kathleen Schuler, MPH.

Posted December 2, 2013 by Dr. Steve Suppan   

FinanceMarketsMarket speculation

Financial Stablity Board (FSB) press conference, November 8.

This blog was originally published November 26, 2013 in an alternate version by the Post Globalization Initiative.

Following the global financial industry default cascade of 2008-09, the Group of 20 (G-20) industrialized countries established the Financial Stability Board (FSB) in 2009, to coordinate policies among FSB members to prevent another global financial crisis. The most recent FSB Plenary took place on November 7–8 in Moscow.

Because the economic consequences of the financial collapse, following more than a decade of deregulation and non-regulation of the industry, have been so severe and widespread, the expectations of the FSB to reform the broken global financial system are high. Frustration with the slow and halting pace of reform extends even to the head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, who commented in a November 7 speech that some of the world’s Too Big To Fail banks appear to lack respect for regulation and even the rule of law. 

(The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) is member of a consortium of NGOs and academics that recently released a report on international financial institution performance, which included a review of the FSB. IATP contributed a short evaluation of the realization of G-20 commitments to regulate over-the-counter derivatives, the financial instruments at the center of the 2008-09 debacle. The value of these financial instruments are derived from the price of an underlying asset, e.g., wheat, oil or an interest rate. I discussed the FSB report to the G-20 on OTC derivatives regulatory reform in one presentation to the Post-Globalization Initiative’s G-20 Counter Summit, September 5-6 in St. Petersburg.)

FSB members include G-20 financial regulatory agencies, international institutions, such as the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), international standards setting bodies, such as the International Organization of Securities Commissions (IOSCO) and financial regulators from five non G-20 industrialized countries. FSB also encompasses six regional consultative group of financial regulators from developing countries and the Commonwealth of Independent States, including Russia. Given the differences of financial industry structure and regulation between G-20 and developing country jurisdictions, according to a recent Harvard International Law Journal article, some analysts question whether the FSB is an appropriate forum in which to discuss non-G-20 country finance.  In September, the FSB published a monitoring report on the effect of G-20 financial reforms on emergency markets and developing countries.

Russia, as this year’s G-20 president, hosted the FSB press conference that customarily follows plenaries. According to the FSB press release, the plenary heard reports from the six regional consultative groups. While but the substance of the reports was not revealed.  However, press releases outlining discussions of past regional consultative group meetings, including two meetings of financial regulators from the Commonwealth of Independent States, are posted at FSB Watch.

FSB decisions are made by consensus and are not binding on members. However, FSB can decide to “name and shame” in reports written by the 28 member FSB secretariat, which is housed in the Bank for International Settlements in Basel, Switzerland. The FSB is legally independent both from the BIS and the G-20, so the secretariat has some degree of autonomy. FSB staff notes alert FSB members to potentially system destabilizing financial instruments, such as commodity index funds. FSB publishes peer reviews of financial reform in its member jurisdictions. The FSB staff does not refrain from saying that FSB members are not providing data and information for its reports, e.g., in its just-released report on the (at least) $71 trillion and largely unregulated "shadow banking" industry of hedge funds, payday loans and other non-bank, non-insurance company financial institutions. (Oddly, pension funds, globally amounting to trillions of dollars and sometimes invested in OTC derivatives, are not FSB classified as part of shadow banking.) Often what is not said speaks more loudly than what is said.

At the November 8 press conference, the FSB Secretary General outlined four topics of plenary work: enhancing banking resilience in the event of losses; preventing public bailouts of Too Big To Fail banks by agreeing on procedures for orderly bankruptcy if needed; preventing huge debt build-up in the shadow banking sector; and regulation of the $668 trillion global Over the Counter derivatives market.  The remainder of this blog is dedicated to the OTC derivatives reform that G-20 leaders committed to conclude by end-2012.

Three major reforms were demanded in September 2009:

  1. OTC trades would be reported to trade data repositories, so they could be reviewed by regulators and have pricing and other information be available to the public;
  2. The credit and payment arrangements (clearing) for “standardized” OTC contracts would be administered on centralized platforms to prevent trader defaults from affecting the whole financial system; and
  3. OTC contracts that are so “customized” to corporate client needs (e.g., contracts to disguise debt as an asset) as to not qualify for clearing would require OTC dealer brokers to set aside higher capital reserves to cover possible losses and be purchased with higher down payments (margin).

There was not a lot the FSB Secretary General could add to the FSB’s September report to the G-20 about OTC derivatives reform without violating diplomatic decorum. Reform advocates have struggled to persuade banks to give up individual profit maximization in return for financial system transparency and stability that will benefit all financial institutions and their users, as demonstrated in a recent BIS study.

This struggle is writ large in the OTC report on “Substantial Progress”: e.g., “By the start of 2014, three-quarters of FSB member jurisdictions intend to have legislation and regulation adopted to require transactions to be reported to trade repositories.” The most potent word in this sentence is “intend.” More than four years after the G-20 leaders committed to making the vast and dark OTC market transparent to regulators and the public by putting trade data in repositories for regulatory review, regulators are still fighting with banks in order to realize that commitment. “Intend,” for the moment at least, is the most “substantial progress” the FSB secretariat can indicate for a majority of its member governments.

Posted November 29, 2013 by Sophia Murphy   

TradeWorld Trade Organization (WTO)

Used under creative commons license from mk30.

A statue titled "Peace" sits outside the World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters in Geneva.

In the category of “praise more fit for a eulogy,” U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman is reported to have said of the last minute negotiations to prepare a package for upcoming WTO Ministerial in Bali: "It's unclear whether they will succeed or not. We certainly hope they will succeed. But [the WTO] has served a very important function and will continue to serve a very important function as a dispute settlement mechanism either way." (Inside US Trade, November 15, 2013).

Froman seems to be saying it is okay if Bali is a failure—which, given the latest news from Geneva, is a good thing because the meeting has failure written all over it.

There are lots of reasons why the system is failing. The Doha Agenda, adopted in 2001 and still ostensibly the framework for negotiations, should not have been agreed in the first place. Multilateral trade rules are worth getting right, but the Uruguay Round agreements on which the rules now in place are based got far too much wrong.

The trade agenda launched in Doha in 2001 is dead but the corpse is not yet buried. Most developing countries say they want it all still—Doha resuscitated—while the majority of industrialized countries want to salvage the corpse for parts; they’ll take deeper deregulation of services, more restrictive intellectual property rights and the harmonization of regulations for transnational firms, but are happy to leave rotting their promise to finally eliminate export subsidies in agriculture, make real cuts to trade-distorting support, or support disciplines on agricultural exporters that are as stringent as the disciplines imposed on food importers.  

In an era of more responsible global leadership, the gathering of trade ministers December 3–6 at the WTO conference in Bali could have marked a watershed. It is clear now it will not. The question, then, is both whether and when governments can rise above their squabbling over the (many) hypocrisies and inconsistencies in the now almost 20-year old Uruguay agreements (most of which serve industrialized countries and transnational investors) and instead focus on how to rethink trade rules given the demands of the 21st century, including higher and more volatile agricultural commodity prices in the face of financial instability as well as less predictable and more extreme weather.

The challenges confronting governments in relation to international trade in agriculture include the need for:

  1. Recognition of the many forms that price instability takes in different developing country contexts, and the importance of countering that instability, so as to allow farmers to invest in their production and to protect people from food insecurity. International markets are valuable, but in no way can they satisfy the complexity of food security needs. The assumption that governments are even willing to deregulate their markets to the extent of the WTO rhetoric only highlights the hypocrisy of the many OECD countries. These countries protect their agriculture (and their consumers) in a variety of ways that are by definition trade distorting, while constantly limiting developing countries’ ability to do the same.
  2. Disciplines that bring exporter and importer responsibilities into line. Neither side should be able to change their commitments without notice or due warning. The G-20 has recognized the problem but failed to take action.
  3. Full and final elimination of all forms of export subsidies.

Like some of the other innovations in multilateral governance in recent years, any real breakthrough on trade is likely to require a new configuration of countries taking the lead. It is important but not enough to add the so-called emerging countries of Brazil, China and India to the United States and Europe and expect that bloc of countries to advance rules that respond to the needs of the 120 or so LDCs and poorer net–food importing countries. It is from agriculture that the most interesting challenge to the evolving status quo has come, specifically from the India-led G-33 proposal to exempt the purchase of food stocks for food security programmes from limits to spending (see IATP’s discussion of the proposal here). Fundamentally, the proposal is an assertion of the importance of domestic food security programs that extend beyond social safety nets to questions of rural livelihoods and capital formation. It is also an assertion of importing countries’ need for greater stability and reliability in the trade system.

In September 2013, a French economist, Franck Galtier, from a French agricultural research institute called CIRAD, published a short paper with additional proposals for the reform of the AoA rules (see here). Among other things, Galtier writes about the importance of stability for developing countries, especially those that experience significant price volatility linked to uncertain domestic supply and weak and unstable currencies. Franck proposes three reforms in the calculation of the Aggregate Measure of Support (known as the AMS or amber box, it is the part of the agreement that limits public spending on agriculture) as to correct existing biases against developing countries:

  1. The baseline against which spending is measured is set to the average price that prevailed from 1986 to 1988 (28 years ago). The number was part of the political negotiation between the European Union and the United States that effectively eliminated their need to actually cut domestic support, though it did set a ceiling that was intended to stop future increases. Commodity prices have soared since 1988, especially in developing countries. Inflation in developing countries as a group has averaged 5–10 percent in recent years, while it has been below 4 percent on average in industrialized countries. Inflation has rendered the baseline meaningless. Although updating the baseline might allow the OECD countries to negotiate yet more spending room for themselves, that seems preferable to keeping rules that discriminate against poorer countries.
  2. The WTO rules have been interpreted to assume that if a government buys any amount of national production at a price higher than market prices then the price for all production that year will be assumed to have received support. This means that even if purchases are only a tiny share of the total produced or, as is common, if the price intervention only lasts a few weeks or months rather than all year, the subsidy is nonetheless calculated as if the whole crop were bought at the procurement price. The effect is to use up the allowed budgetary support on imagined rather than actual spending. While any purchase at non-market prices will have some kind of effect on the whole market, clearly there are volumes low enough that the effect will be negligible—certainly far different than would be the effect of a price support at the higher rate for the entire crop.
  3. The WTO rules do not allow countries to add back as credit to the AMS the sale of public stocks at below market prices, although such sales are effectively a tax on farmers in exactly the way purchases above market prices provide a subsidy. A country might seek to use both purchases and sales of stocks to support a level of equilibrium in market prices that supports long-term development objectives. Such interventions might avoid the necessity of more disruptive interventions if the market is prone to failure. By only counting the subsidy effects, the rules exaggerate the level of support that public purchases provide to farmers.

The G-33 proposal does not go into such detail. It is instead the latest iteration in the group’s longstanding fight to regain governments’ right to policy space for domestic agriculture and food security priorities. India, the leading spokesperson for the proposal within the G-33, is fighting for the right to be able to buy food from its domestic producers at a reasonably good price and then to use that food for consumer safety nets. The U.S. essentially did this for decades, but then moved away from a direct role in price floors and stopped accumulating stocks. Now U.S. firms and some producer organizations complain that countries such as India will use these tools to limit food imports, depriving them of export markets. U.S. civil society groups have countered that the G-33 proposal is an important first step to reforming unfair rules.

Up until the last minute before Bali, governments have been negotiating the terms of a “due restraint” or Peace Clause. Instead of changing the rules to accommodate the food security spending as the G33 requested, the Peace Clause would instead allow countries to spend more than their AMS limits, under certain conditions, without the threat of trade disputes from other members. It sidesteps everything interesting about the G33 proposal, especially from the perspective of the majority of developing countries who do not have the resources to overspend on their AMS but need to intervene in their agricultural markets. The contention between the G33 and the opponents of the proposal (such as the US) has been whether the Peace Clause should be applicable for a limited time (no more than 4 years) or more open-ended until countries devise an optimal solution. Under this meager concession, many countries that urgently want access to measures to stabilize their food security situations will continue unsupported by the WTO rules. The G-33 proposal got to the heart of the dilemma for trade rules in unstable times; no trade can work without confidence in the trading system. The existing rules do not give countries the confidence they need to take advantage of all trade has to offer. It’s time for rules that do. Apparently that will have to wait until after Bali. But it cannot wait for long.

IATP’s Shefali Sharma will attend the Bali Ministerial and will be reporting on the evolution of this debate.

Posted November 27, 2013 by Ben Lilliston   

IATP joins the Food Chain Workers Alliance and other allies around the country in supporting International Food Workers Week.

As we prepare to gather with family members around the dinner table and give thanks, let’s remember the nation’s 20 million food workers. From the field, to the processing facility to the grocery store, these workers have some of the nation’s most difficult and sometimes dangerous jobs, while often living below the poverty line.

The momentum to ensure food workers are treated fairly is growing, particularly around the need to increase the minimum wage. A recent report by the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley and the Food Chain Workers Alliance shows how raising the minimum wage would particularly improve the lives of food workers, while only increasing food prices by an average of less than half a percent. The Fair Minimum Wage Act in Congress would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour over the next three years. The proposal also includes an increase in the minimum wage for tipped workers to 70 percent of the minimum wage. Better wages for workers help strengthen the economy and the food system. Sign this petition to ask Congress to act!

The Food Chainworkers Alliance’s Joann Lo outlines a number of other policy options to improve the lives of food workers at IATP’s Beyond the Farm Bill website.

IATP joins the Food Chain Workers Alliance and other allies around the country in supporting International Food Workers Week. During the week, a variety of actions are taking place around the country, from those focusing on raising the minimum wage to Black Friday Actions at Wal-Mart. Learn more about events happening in your part of the country.  

Posted November 27, 2013 by Shefali Sharma   

TradeWTOFood securityWorld Trade Organization (WTO)

United States Trade Representative Michael Froman greets stakeholders, including IATP, in July. Photo credit: Office of the USTR.

People in the U.S. may still remember how the streets were shut down in Seattle exactly 14 years ago (1999) as trade diplomats from all around the world gathered for the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) 3rd Ministerial meeting. Back then, there were protests on the streets by citizens who asserted that trade policy could not be made without public debate and behind closed doors because of its implications for everyday concerns such as food, environment, health and other issues that shape our lives. At that meeting, there was a revolt by developing countries as well, who felt that a backroom deal was being made by a few powerful countries that would then be imposed on them as an international agreement. Though the U.S. and other rich countries failed to launch a new trade round in Seattle, they succeeded two years later, in Doha, in the wake of September 11.

Fast forward 12 years and we have a WTO stalemate once more in time for the 9th WTO Ministerial in Bali next week. The conflict proves yet again that trade policy cannot be made in a vacuum, particularly when it comes to critical human concerns such as governments’ obligation to protect their citizens’ right to food.

The controversy pits the government of India against the United States, but in reality, the controversial G-33 proposal (named after the group of developing countries who have tabled it) is about allowing all developing countries the policy space to spend public resources on food stocks to ensure price stability and food security. U.S. opposition to that proposal has focused in part on the argument that this would limit export opportunities for companies wanting to sell in the Indian market. U.S. agribusinesses and commodity groups also complained in an October letter to the US. Trade Representative (USTR) that the proposed creation of food reserves would unfairly advantage producers in those countries.

Thus far, the U.S. government has dug its heels in and even indicated that a failure in Bali is likely unless the G-33 drops its proposal and accepts instead a time-limited deal (called a “Peace Clause”) that would allow governments to support food stocks as an exception to the rules. The implication of such an agreement would be that governments must take steps to end these programs before the time on the deal is up. In response to this unfair stance, some 40 U.S. food, faith-based, nutrition, health, development and economic justice organizations have written to USTR calling on the government to accept the G-33 proposal to change the rules to allow food stocks. The letter highlights “that the current agriculture rules in the WTO (including domestic support) are rigged to support big agribusiness. We do all countries a disservice when we promote only commercial export interests, ignoring the real political (and moral) imperative that governments are responsible for their citizens’ welfare, including their right to adequate and affordable food and fair prices to agriculture producers.”

The letter continues, “The G-33 food security proposal is an important first step in the reframing of global trade rules to promote more equitable and stable markets, especially for countries that face huge food security challenges. The U.S. proposal for a “Peace Clause” to suspend potential challenges to those efforts at the WTO is an unfair and inadequate response to a sensible proposal to explore new options to improve stability in national and global markets.”

The ball is very much in the USTR’s court to do the right thing in Bali next week.

Read the group sign-on letter to the USTR on the G-33 food security proposal. 




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