Stark County farmer Jeff Zellers headed to Cancun earlier this week, but the night before he left, he wasn’t talking about sandy beaches and fun in the sun.
“I have at least 10 position papers to read on the plane,” he confessed.
Zellers joins Ohio Farm Bureau President Terry McClure and OFB staffer Constance Jackson as nongovernmental observers of the five-day meeting of the 146 member-nations of the World Trade Organization. The ministerial meeting began Sept. 10 and runs through Sunday.
Most farmers tune out international trade talks, failing to find the connection to their farms. But farm subsidies and farm programs are the most contentious of the trade subjects on the global bargaining table.
In fact, some reports are saying agricultural subsidies are the very meat of the debate and are blocking progress in the trade talks.
The long-term objective is a fundamental reform of world markets, working toward a market-oriented trading system. For the first time, negotiators are looking at reducing – and even phasing out – export subsidies worldwide.
One proposal involves a 50 percent reduction, followed by eliminating subsidies completely in three years in developed countries.
More cuts are coming. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick has said the U.S. is committed to “deeper cuts” in agricultural subsidies and tariffs, “if others give American farmers a fair chance to compete, too.” And that means market access, something developing countries are fighting.
Out of the 146 WTO member-countries, roughly 120 are developing countries, and many are reluctant to open their borders to agricultural and nonfarm products, fearing social, economic and political unrest.
WTO members will also be asked to commit to substantially reducing domestic supports that distort trade. Those last three words may be in the eye of the beholder and hard to pin down country by country. Many domestic subsidies, including programs in the United States, are cloaked in a disguise of food security and environmental protection.
The agricultural trade agreements are to be completed by Jan. 1, 2005, although most intermediate deadlines have been missed so it’s unlikely we’ll reach agreement in less than two years.
It will hit home.Like it or not, “we truly are involved in the global marketplace,” said Zellers, who is part of his family’s produce operation in the rich muck soil of Hartville, Ohio.
He became involved by watching the European Union subsidies of the horticulture industry there impact his livelihood here in Ohio.
“These negotiations will cut domestic support,” Zellers said, “and we’re not very good at fighting for market access.”
Most U.S. agricultural organizations are holding the USDA’s feet to the fire to negotiate that market access.
Big business. According to U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, all exports accounted for 27 percent of U.S. growth over the past decade.
In agriculture, we export: more than two-thirds of the cotton we produce; more than half of the rice and the wheat; 38 percent of the soybeans; and the equivalent of an additional 5 percent of total U.S. grain and oilseed production in the form of meat.
“For U.S. agriculture, the future really is trade,” said Allen Johnson, chief agricultural negotiator, in a media briefing Sept. 4.
“Every year, we become more productive, our domestic consumption is relatively flat and yet outside our borders there’s a larger population, 96 percent of the world’s population,” Johnson said.
“Our view is,” he added, “if we’re presented market access opportunities, our farmers are much better off in a world with less subsidies and less market access barriers.”
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