Rice farmers in Viet Nam. Cotton growers in Kenya. Campesinos in
southern Mexico. Millions of people around the world depend on agriculture,
either directly or indirectly, to earn their livelihoods. Farming
is especially crucial for the world's rural poor -- 70 percent of
this most vulnerable of populations depends on agriculture as their
sole source of income.
But despite booming world trade in food products -- the value of
which has roughly doubled over the last two decades, according to
FAO -- agriculture in the developing world continues to struggle.
Today, the share of developing countries in world food trade adds
up to about 27 percent of the total -- essentially the same level
as 20 years ago.
Indeed, for all the economic opportunities associated with international
trade, poor farmers in the developing world often find themselves
unable to compete in overseas markets. Also, they are frequently
outcompeted by foreign imports at home as well. This is largely
due to unfair, subsidized competition. Since 1980, the total food
import bill of the developing world has grown some 60 percent.
Many of the challenges underlying this situation -- lack of credit,
inadequate infrastructure, lack of technology, and in some cases
social strife -- are internal.
Others are not.
In particular, development advocates, including FAO, have long pointed
to the agricultural subsidies and tariffs used by wealthy countries
to support their farming sectors as having a serious, if not fatal,
drag effect on the sustainable development of agriculture in the
poor parts of the world.
In 2001, faced with a groundswell of voices from developing nations
urging that imbalances in global trading rules be redressed, countries
attending the fourth ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization
(WTO) in Doha, Qatar, agreed to put these issues front and centre
in their negotiations.
A previous series of trade talks (the Uruguay Round, 1986-1994)
had produced an agreement that called for reductions in export subsidies,
domestic support to farmers and tariffs on imports of agriculture
products -- policies long targeted by developing countries as a
barrier to their participation in the global marketplace.
At Doha, however, many poor countries argued that those reductions
hadn't done enough to level the playing field. As a result, in the
final declaration adopted at Doha, WTO members committed themselves
to undertaking "comprehensive negotiations aimed at: substantially
improving market access; reduction of, with a view to phasing out,
all forms of export subsidies; and, substantial reductions in trade-distorting
Observers greeted these goals as a good first step towards creating
a fairer global marketplace.
But two years later, negotiations regarding "modalities"
-- the guidelines, procedures and deadlines that govern how those
goals will be achieved -- remain ongoing, even though they were
to have been ironed out by now.
Recently, the United States and the European Union forged a bilateral
agreement to eliminate subsidies over time on products of "particular
interest" to developing nations in order to pave the way for
progress at the WTO ministerial conference in Cancún, Mexico,
from 10 to 14 September. Observers have cautiously greeted the move
as improving prospects for implementing the agenda charted at Doha.
However, some have noted that the agreement fails to identify those
products or to establish a timeline for the removal of subsidies.
"For the first time there is some movement in the right direction,"
FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf says. "But it is just a
step on a long road, which would lead to what I hope would be a
true level playing field in the area of agricultural trade, that
would create conditions that are more favourable to developing countries."
Will developing countries' concerns be resolved at Cancún?
Prospects remain uncertain. Many poor countries continue to insist
on deeper commitments to reducing subsidies and domestic supports
in developed nations and are unwilling to compromise on other areas
until that happens.
"For the world's 840 million hungry people, there is a lot
at stake," warns Diouf. "Agricultural development and
improved job opportunities in rural areas could mean the difference
between life and death. Their fate may decide whether we live in
a stable world, or one wracked by failing economies, political turmoil
and social chaos."
For an overview of trade issues related to food security that
FAO will be raising at the upcoming Cancún WTO ministerial,
browse the stories and links to the right.
FAO Media Office
(+39) 06 570 53625