Does the world need a “shared vision on food and agricultural trade policy”? So says World Trade Organization Director General Pascal Lamy:
Let me start by saying that food and agricultural trade policy does not operate in a vacuum. In other words, no matter how sophisticated our trade policies may be, if domestic policies do not themselves incentivize agriculture, and internalize negative social and environmental externalities, then we will always have a problem.
Here I question what exactly Lamy means by “incentivize”. Does he mean “make sure we get incentives right”, or does he mean “provide positive incentives to agriculture”? The former probably is harmless if it means simply allowing market forces to work, the latter a potential opening for the types of subsidies and price supports that have done so much damage to agricultural trade policy. Ditto with his wish to “internalize negative social and environmental externalities”: on the face of it, this is a fairly inoffensive goal, and a positively noble one if he is referring to, say, the effects on poor farmers abroad stemming from rich country farm subsidies. But I can see all sorts of nefarious social policies flowing from that prescription if it gets into the wrong hands.
Lamy goes on to make sensible points about the effects of tax policy on agriculture, and makes this statement about the importance of free trade for food security:
To my mind, global integration allows us to think of efficiency beyond national boundaries. It allows us to score efficiency gains on a global scale by shifting agricultural production to where it can best take place. As I often say, if a country such as Egypt were to aim for self-sufficiency in agriculture, it would soon need more than one River Nile. Which basically means that global integration must also allow food, feed, and fibre to travel from countries where they are efficiently produced to countries where there is demand.
All necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for global food security, to be sure. But Lamy then turns to exactly what a global vision for agriculture might involve:
I believe that we could all agree on what the basic objectives are that we seek from our agricultural systems. We all want sufficient food, feed, fibre and some even want fuel. We want nutritious food and feed. We want safe food and feed. We want a decent and rising living standard for our farmers. We want food to be available and affordable for the consumer. We want agricultural production systems that are in tune with local culture and customs, and that respect the environment throughout a product’s entire life-cycle.
Hmm. I’m not sure about all that. For one thing, some of those goals seem potentially in conflict. United States sugar policy, for example, has shown us the results when consumers’ desire for “affordable” food conflicts with sugar farmers’ desire for a “decent and rising living standard” (hint: it’s not the consumers who make out like bandits). Similarly, it is at least conceivable that food grown “in tune with local culture and customs” might be more expensive, or make food less abundant, or even less safe. And if those goals can be in conflict within a country’s borders, I shudder to think what such an overburdened agenda could do to the already-struggling global trading system. At the extreme, a call for a “global vision” of agricultural trade policy could see the return of international commodity agreements and other supranational management nightmares of the mid-late 20th century.
On balance, the WTO has been a force for good in freeing agricultural trade. For sure, commodity markets are still very distorted, and the whole mercantilist basis of the WTO must be questioned. But by trying to harness the desire of exporters for more customers to counteract the pressure on governments to protect domestic industries, the WTO has done much good in the world. Pascal Lamy is right to encourage countries to stay on course with the Doha round of trade negotiations. I just hope that encouraging a “global vision” for agriculture, and pointing to vague notions of “social externalities,” doesn’t run against his stated purpose of freeing farm trade.
More on Cato’s work on agricultural trade policy here.