at the WTO:
let’s change the debate!
by Bénédicte Hermelin and Jean-Pierre Rolland,
economists - even the most liberal -
recognise the specific features of agriculture. The rigidity of
supply and demand for agricultural products causes strong
market instability. Thus, imagining that a farmer can respond
precisely to market signals means forgetting the length of production
cycles, the central role of the climatic factor and the scale
of investments. Likewise, as consumers have appetites of significant
but limited size they cannot indefinitely increase or reduce their
food intake, however much prices vary. Furthermore, agricultural
production is related to a territory that it models, occupies
and develops. Only soilless production of crops or animals overcomes
this constraint, but is this still agriculture?
All countries - whatever their more
or less liberal negotiating positions - should take these features
into account. Although Europe recognises them openly to justify
its agricultural policy, the United States spends thousands of
millions of dollars on correcting a marked agricultural slump,
showing that it cannot do without its farmers entirely. And then
there are the environmental problems faced by all the countries
that have opted for very intensive, specialised agriculture (New
Zealand, Argentina, the United States and the Netherlands to mention
only a few). Finally, food security is a fundamental issue faced
to a more or less acute extent by all countries, from Japan to
Burkina Faso by way of Brazil.
Agriculture is a 'specifically' important
sector for the developing countries, as it concerns a majority
of the population, helps to fight poverty and because food insecurity
is not a vain expression. Furthermore, these countries are less
well endowed with factors of production than the developed countries.
Although all these reasons form justification
for the adoption of agricultural support policies, the latter
should nevertheless not hinder international trade. Now, it is
seen that aid from developed countries, mainly Europe and the
United States, has contributed to a fall in world prices and the
impoverishment of southern farmers. The WTO Agreement on Agriculture
was precisely aimed at injecting more discipline into agricultural
trade and policies.
But this did not happen. The agreement
legitimises more or less hidden dumping, authorises costly support
available only to the rich countries and removes any possibility
of domestic market protection and regulation for developing countries.
It thus sets face to face heavily subsidised, extremely productive
agricultures and less well endowed agricultures with no support
at all. Today, the negotiations are focused mainly on the further
degree of liberalisation to be implemented and on the type of
agricultural support that is acceptable, since it is assumed not
to have a negative effect on trade. Staying within these discussions
means making a mistake with regard to the issue. The central question
must be the type of agriculture that responds to citizens' expectations
in all the countries of the world and be beyond the question of
Europe defends the idea that agriculture
should not depend on market laws alone and can therefore change
the terms of the debate. On condition that it removes the ambiguities
from its agricultural policy, thus giving a strong signal to its
partners and to the developing countries in particular.