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.