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“To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.” (Excerpt from President Obama’s inaugural address.)

More than any U.S. president in history, Barack Obama has focused public attention on global hunger and the need to bolster food production by small-scale farmers in developing countries. He championed this cause at the 2009 G-8 meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, where he called on world leaders to commit $20 billion to address food security, promising $3.5 billion from the United States. After a series of consultations among various government agencies and civil society organizations, the Obama administration launched the Feed the Future initiative in May 2010. That program emphasizes the importance of small-scale farmers, especially women, in country-led programs and a multiagency “whole of government” approach to global food security.

And therein lies the rub. Trade talks are gaining new momentum. After a two-year lull following the collapse of the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks in 2008, G-20 leaders have called for a resumption of the negotiations in 2011, with WTO Director General Pascal Lamy calling for completion of draft modality texts by the end of March. The U.S. is also promoting its own ambitious agenda of regional and bilateral trade talks. Negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership continue to advance and to expand to even more countries in Southeast Asia. The U.S. and South Korean governments recently resolved remaining differences over market access for dairy, beef and automobiles in the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (FTA). That agreement, along with pending bilateral agreements with Panama and Colombia, could be introduced for Congressional approval in 2011.

The food, finance and climate crises are all evidence of how much the world has changed since the era of free trade accords began, but the U.S. agricultural trade agenda remains essentially the same as the approach first adopted in the 1990s under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Recent reports of rising food prices and riots in some countries add new urgency to the imperative to get these policies right.

U.S. trade policy must start from our goals rather than our tactics. Ending global hunger, enhancing incomes and employment, and encouraging a transition to climate friendly agriculture should be the goals of U.S. agricultural, economic and development policy. Trade policy should be a tool to support those goals rather than a loose cannon that shoots them down.

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