A World Trade Organization (WTO) deal appears imminent on Friday after the 159-member body held its Ninth Ministerial Meeting in Bali.
While some are cheering the deal as "historic" after India held firm on a food security program, skeptics say the deal is a continuation of global trade policies in which "corporate ‘rights’ trump the right of people to food."
Deborah James, Director of International Programs at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, gives this background:
It is a little-known but outrageous asymmetry in the current WTO rules, that while developed countries are allowed to massively subsidize their agriculture (to the tens or hundreds of billions annually), only 17 developing countries are allowed to subsidize over a minimal amount. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food criticized the current WTO agricultural rules in advance of the last WTO Ministerial through a stinging report, The World Trade Organization and the Post-Global Food Crisis Agenda: Putting Food Security First in the International Food System, which ruffled quite a few feathers at the WTO.
Now India, the country with the largest number of poor farmers, is embarking on the most far-reaching food security program in the world, attempting to not only provide subsidized food to the poor, but to ensure that the food is purchased at fair prices from extremely poor farmers. Unfortunately, this program – in contrast to the food stamp program of the United States – would run afoul of WTO limits on developing country agricultural subsidies.
Thus, in the last year, India has courageously led a coalition including Indonesia, the Philippines, and dozens of other developing countries, demanding that WTO rules change to allow them to subsidize farmers producing food for domestic consumption, so that they can reach their national Food Security goals.
But the U.S has shown its "truly evil position" by trying to push trade rules that would overpower India's program, James continues, and Timoth Wise of Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute called the Obama administration's opposition to the program a "direct attack on the right to food." Such resistance led to the creation of to what has been dubbed a "peace clause" to suspend it. James writes:
Of course, the proposed Peace Clause only makes sense if it is in effect until a permanent solution could be agreed upon to change the rules. While the U.S. argues for permanent rules on trade facilitation, it only wants a Peace Clause of a few years, and even then with so many conditions as to invalidate its usefulness! This is a truly evil position of the U.S. in the negotiations, and one which should have advocates of the right to food, and food sovereignty, and just about anyone against people dying of hunger, united in a clarion call for immediate change.
'This is a truly evil position of the U.S. in the negotiations, and one which should have advocates of the right to food, and food sovereignty, and just about anyone against people dying of hunger, united in a clarion call for immediate change.'
-Deborah JamesAfter strong resistance from India to dropping its subsidies program over four days of negotiations on the Indonesian island, a compromise seems to have been reached. The Guardian's Poverty Matters blog sums up:
The Bali meeting's tense final moments came down to a standoff over food security, an issue that had divided developing countries. On one side, India was arguing that it should be allowed to pay its farmers above-market prices for the crops that it buys for the government's domestic food stockpiles. In a country where more than half of the workforce is employed in the agricultural sector, farming is very big politics. With elections looming in the first half of next year, Indian officials didn't want to look as though they were selling out Indian farmers on the world stage.
On the other side, developing countries such as Thailand, Pakistan, and Uruguay – all of which, like India, are major exporters of rice – contended that overpaid farmers in India could undercut producers in their own countries. The US was also a vocal opponent, arguing that India was asking for allowances that went against the spirit of the free trade talks, which generally aim to reduce – not increase – government intervention in the marketplace.
After closed-door meetings that lasted well into the early hours of Friday, the negotiators in Bali finally came to a provisional agreement (pdf), which is due to be finalised on Friday evening. Countries agreed to a four-year peace clause, meaning that they won't challenge India's food security measures before December 2017. In return, India has vowed to ensure that its policies "do not distort trade or adversely affect the food security of other [WTO] members", among a few other conditions.
Yet some food sovereignty advocates are saying the deal with the four-year "peace clause" is no win at all.
"The compromises made allow a small exemption which might allow India to protect its programs to improve food security, until a permanent agreement is reached," stated Nick Dearden of the World Development Movement. "But this exemption is so tightly constructed it will make almost no difference to other countries. Ultimately, the dogma of free trade will continue to mean that corporate ‘rights’ trump the right of people to food."
"Rich country governments have clearly shown that global poverty is not on their priority list," Dearden said
Ahead of the final day of negotiations, some farmers were sounding alarm.
“We don't want to get into discussions on whether the peace clause should be for 4 years or 10 years--the point is that the WTO is doing nothing for the farmers, in the long run it spells death for us. Indian farmers will never accept such a deal,” said Yudhvir Singh of BKU, the largest farmers union in India.
Pablo Solon, Executive Director of Focus on the Global South, also expressed that the deal was no win, tweeting on Friday:
— Pablo Solon (@pablosolon) December 6, 2013
Other social movements agreed, and held demonstrations outside the talks to say no fair deal will ever come from the WTO because it's a tool of imperialism and corporate power.
“18 years of the WTO has been more than enough. What we need is alternatives to free trade and a system that is based on Economic Justice," stated Lidy Nacpil of Jubilee South.
— Global Trade Watch (@PCGTW) December 4, 2013